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Flipper Bands – Are they worth the risk to save a species?

penguin flipper bands

Flipper Bands – Are they worth the risk to save a species?

by Georgia Podmore

You can walk around a variety of zoos and see that many penguins will have flipper bands with the purpose of enabling keepers to identify the individuals easily. At a glance, this might not appear to be a problem. The penguins are swimming in their enclosure and seem to be behaving normally. However, the small metal band that has an identity scribed onto it could be causing more harm than it is worth.

Since the 1970s, research has investigated the use of flipper bands and the harm that they could cause, generally focusing on wounds that are caused when a penguin goes through its annual molt (Hampton, Ryan and Underhill, 2009). It is not only penguins in captive environment that may be having trouble with flipper bands. Researchers are continuously trying to uncover new information on different species, population counts and climate change. To gain significant data, flipper bands are often used when studying large colonies of penguins.

Are Flipper Bands Safe?

For many years, this topic has caused a debate among researchers. The team at the University of Strasbourg used evidence to back up Rory Wilson’s statement that “Some tags seem to slow down penguins”. (Jackson and Wilson, 2002) The researchers placed metal bands on 50 King Penguins, while 50 other penguins were fitted with minor radio-frequency transponders. After 10 years, it was revealed that survival rates for the banded penguins was 16% lower than the penguins that were fitted with transponders. It was observed that banded birds were affected in a variety of ways, such as being slower to breed and taking longer periods of time to forage (Gauthier-Clerc et al., 2004).

Yellow-eyed penguin with flipper band

Although there are a variety of studies examining flipper bands and the effect on wild birds, some studies have found no evidence to back this up. Jackson and Wilson (2002) found that with Royal Penguins, there was no difference in the growth of chicks, survival in harsh climates or success of breeding in flipper-banded birds compared to transponder-fitted birds. However, the main portion of research – that has concluded that flipper bands are not detrimental to penguins – has been evaluating short-term use of them (Saraux et al ,. 2011).

Dee Boersma, a leading penguin researcher, believes: “All bands and all penguins are not the same” (Culik, Wilson and Bannasch, 1993).  It is hard to settle a debate when research looking into the effect of flipper bands on penguins is focusing on a variety of different species in a diversity range of environments. With 18 species of penguins all living in various climates, it is difficult to come to a concluding factor on the effect of flipper bands on welfare, as it is dependent on the individual penguins, as well as what type of flipper band is used.

Flipper bands are currently used in research to gain knowledge on the effects of climate change and the impact it is having on marine mammals. Scientists need to gather information on climate change, as it is believed that through observing marine mammals, predictions can be made earlier. Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the world and the species living on it. If scientists can make predictions earlier, this can hopefully make a positive change. If they are unable to use the flipper bands to research the penguins, many other species may be in danger of becoming extinct. Dee Boersma states: “we do have to do some harm if we want to follow individuals” (Culik, Wilson and Bannasch, 1993). However, is it worth the risk to save a species? Significant data shows that penguin survival and breeding rates become lower when fitted with a flipper band. Could the long-term studies of climate change cause the extinction of penguins if these types of research are continuously used?

Northern Rockhopper Penguin with flipper band

Investigations into the use of small transponders have found that these have a less negative effect on the individual penguins, although further research is needed to understand whether this will affect welfare negatively in the long-term. The topic is debatable in many ways as studies have found different statistics. It is obvious that flipper bands do cause harm – whether minor or major to penguins – but climate change research is necessary to save the penguins. A study that may help push the use of transponders or similar tracking devices may be a project that assesses captive penguins. The penguins would all be the same species and live in the same environment. This research would enable more data to be published on the effects of flipper bands on specific species, climates and other factors such as age and gender. Through this type of research, this may then enable scientists to lower the risk of affecting wild penguins if they are able to understand what factors may increase the risk.

What are your thoughts on the use of flipper bands on penguins? Let us know! Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International. We more than appreciate your support!

You can also read more about penguins in the following blogs:

References-

Culik, B., Wilson, R. and Bannasch, R. (1993) Flipper-bands on penguins: what is the cost of a life-long commitment? Marine Ecology Progress Series, 98, pp.209-214.

Gauthier-Clerc, M., Gendner, J., Ribic, C., Fraser, W., Woehler,E., Descamps, S., Gilly, C., Le Bohec, C. and Le Maho, Y. (2004). Long-term effects of flipper bands on penguins. Proceeding of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 271 (supple_6)

Hampton, S., Ryan, P. and Underhill (2009) The effect of flipper banding on the breeding success of African Penguins Spheniscus demersus at Boulders Beach, South Africa. Ostrich, 80(2) pp.77-80.

Jackson, S. and Wilson, R. (2002) The potential costs of flipper-bands to penguins. Functional Ecology, 16(1), pp. 141-148.

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