Are antarctic penguins toppling onto their backs when aircraft fly low over their icy domain? British press reports earlier this month suggested they were, quoting a Navy officer as saying that penguins are so intrigued by the sight of helicopters that they crane their necks until they fall over.
In fact, little is known about how penguins and other birds are reacting to increasing activity by low-flying aircraft, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). So a team of researchers set off this month to find out. They will use helicopters to buzz some of the 400,000 pairs of king penguins on the 170-km-long island of South Georgia, with five daily overflights every other day for 9 days at altitudes ranging from 500 to 2000 meters. The researchers, led by Richard Stone of BAS, will videotape penguins at Antarctic Bay before, during, and after the flights, and will do chick and nest counts to see how breeding is affected. (Penguins at Possession Bay will be used as controls.) The data will be used to produce guidelines for antarctic helicopter flights.
Past studies of overflight impacts have documented penguins running away from nests, executing "head movements," and changing heart rates and body temperatures. But creative reporting to the contrary, the BAS says that "there is no scientific evidence for penguins falling over backwards when helicopters overfly."