December 14, 2009 / 5:51 AM / 9 years ago

Antarctic researcher commutes across continents for work

ON BOARD THE ASTROLABE, Southern Ocean, Dec 14 (Reuters Life!) - Getting to and from work can be annoying if you hit traffic, but for Mireille Raccurt, it takes more than 10 days of flying and sailing through treacherous seas to get to her job.

Two Adelie penguins rest on the shores of Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica December 13, 2009. REUTERS/Pauline Askin

Dr Raccurt is a researcher with France’s government-funded National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) as well as a lecturer at the Universite Claude Bernard at Lyon.

She has been traveling to the French scientific station in Dumont D’Urville in east Antarctica for eight summers now to conduct research on the Adelie penguin, whose population has dropped by more than 65 percent over the past 25 years due to the reduction in sea ice and a scarcity of food.

“In France it’s not possible to have Adelie penguins visit your office like it is in Antarctica,” Raccurt told Reuters aboard The Astrolabe, a rolling, motion-sickness inducing icebreaker on the Southern Ocean.

“Adelie penguins are a unique model of metabolic adaptation.”

Penguins, the emblematic residents of the South Pole, are endotherms or “warm blooded”, which means they are able to keep their body temperature at a warm, constant 38 degrees Celsius (100.40F) despite low surrounding temperatures.

The CNRS program aims to investigate the adaptive mechanisms developed by Adelie penguins in the face of these cold temperatures throughout their life cycle.

December is the warmest month in Antarctica and when the penguin parents take turns incubating their egg until it hatches. The chick then needs to put on weight quickly to survive the rigors of later life.

Due to the brevity of this summer season, the growth of Adelie chicks is a true race against the clock, and having nearly 24 hour of daylight allows Raccurt to spend long hours at her laboratory on the ice.

“Any parameter, such as climatic conditions and food availability that affects rapid chick growth and building up of energy reserves, is detrimental to juvenile survival during that early period and later at departure to sea,” she said.

Global warming has helped boost the number of penguins because it means easier access to food-rich — and less icy — waters, but Raccurt said any disruption to the ecosystem, no matter how slight, can cause dramatic damage to the seabird populations.

It is quite normal for Raccurt to have Adelie penguins pop into her lab, where she takes tissue samples from the birds for analysis. In France, her job involves more lecturing and research, which makes her time on the ice more special.

“Most of the time here is spent working. It’s a great advantage having all the time to work,” Raccurt said.

When she is not working, Raccurt goes for walks on the ice and plays billiards with the other residents of Dumont D’Urville.

The highlight of the week is a “movie night” when the mess area turns into a cinema.

From December through to March there can be up to 70 people living and working at the camp, while in winter it is reduced to about 25.

Under the Antarctic Treaty, which regulates international relations with respect to the only continent without a native human population, Adelie and King penguins are the only species of penguin allowed to be researched.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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