Rachel Hickcox, Penguin Detective.
By Amy Archer, University of Otago, Masters of Science Communication student
“Something is happening, we just don’t know what.”
This is the mystery behind unexplained mortalities in the South Island population of hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins), and University of Otago PhD candidate Rachel Hickcox is living her dream putting together one piece of this puzzle.
Hoiho are a hot topic at the moment, and not just for being a tourism favourite in Aotearoa. These endemic birds are disappearing at an alarming rate, particularly within the mainland populations around the south-east coast of Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island. There has been a massive decrease of 75% in the Otago Peninsula population since the mid-90’s, and this downward trend is echoed throughout the other mainland populations. Scientists like Rachel are trying to figure out why.
It is well-known that hoiho well-being is threatened by predators and habitat loss, along with starvation, disease, warming oceans, and the possibility of getting caught as bycatch. But something else is killing them, and scientists don’t know what.
They call it, “unexplained mortality”. Penguins quite obviously die from similar but unknown causes each year, and in some years more than 50 birds have died from this invisible killer. Rachel’s research is providing clues, and in the process she gets to live out her dream of working with penguins, something her highschool self would never have thought possible.
“Penguins have always been my favourite animal,” she says – so much so that for her 16th birthday, she received a live penguin encounter as a gift. “It just…blew my mind,” she recalls. She brought this passion with her into her studies.
Taking biology and chemistry classes throughout highschool, Rachel went on to complete an undergraduate degree in biology and biotechnology in her birth country of the USA, however preferred the macro-world over the micro-world, and decided to follow this path. “I like to be able to see what’s going on…or see the organism at least!”
Having family in the UK drew her there to complete a master’s degree, studying macroecology of global penguins after her intended project studying Magellanic (South American) penguins in the field fell through. This experience provided a revelation: she loved spatial modelling and working with programs to map out where penguins roamed. These skills are fundamental to the role she’s playing in solving the hoiho dilemma today.
Her PhD project involves tracking hoiho to estimate their nesting range and marine foraging range. Knowing this will help scientists figure out what is going on at sea – the new major focus of most hoiho research – and will be a step towards figuring out these unexplained mortalities.
“I’m really interested in knowing what environmental factors they require in order to survive and… be healthy,” Rachel says, showing her heart for the dwindling penguins. Hopefully, working as team, scientists can figure out what’s affecting hoiho, and remedy this before it’s too late. “At this stage, every individual counts.”
Her best guess? “I suspect that because of starvation, lack of food, poor nutrition, etcetera…they’re not able to buffer any of the other additional threats, and being malnourished and starving, all of their immuno-responses are really depressed which I think is leading to higher cases of these illnesses that are inherently in the population. We’ve seen them and we know that they exist, but they’re just becoming more of a detrimental threat.”
Rachel’s planning for the future remains broad as she continues with the opportunistic approach that has brought her this far. The academic path is an option, but wants to stick to the applied conservation and research route. For now, her goal is to finish her PhD before her scholarship runs out. She is in the midst of the data analysis stage, and hoping to check her models against new data when the breeding season gets into full swing. As summer hits, there will be nests to count, chicks to monitor, GPS devices to deploy, and adult hoiho to track. It’s not all penguin-petting and checking on chicks, though; the days in the field are outnumbered by days sat behind a computer screen. Luckily, Rachel likes working with programs for mapping and modelling, though she admits it is brain-bending at times.
“A lot of it is teaching yourself,” she says, an essential trait in any 21st-century scientist. When the computers are proving challenging, she makes good use of all the tools available to her, including Google when answers are needed. “I don’t know where I would be without some of these platforms…I definitely would not be getting my PhD!”