On the Sunny Beaches of Brazil, A Perplexing Inrush of Penguins

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 3, 2008

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Not everyone in Rio de Janeiro has taken to the penguins quite the way Cecilia Breves has, but even for her, there is a learning curve.

Her new penguin friends do not, it turns out, care for the red plastic igloo she purchased, except when it rains. Nor are all the young ones adept at swallowing whole sardines -- she has ruined more than one blender grinding their daily fish smoothies. And when she took to cradling them on her lap to watch TV in the evenings -- being, as they are, wild flightless birds that aren't housebroken -- it didn't take long for her to realize she must first swaddle them in a towel, for cleanliness.

"I was very happy when I had one or two, because they are so cute. They'd follow me around everywhere," said Breves, 57, a retired photographer. "It's much harder when there are eight of them."

The sheer quantity of young penguins that have washed up on Brazil's sun-drenched beaches this year has confounded nearly everyone who comes in contact with them. Each summer and early fall, some gray-and-white Magellanic penguins could be expected to drift here, washed by ocean currents more than 2,000 miles north from their homes in southern Argentina near the bottom of the world.

This year is different. Like some maritime dust-bowl migration, more than 1,000 of these penguins have floated ashore in Brazil, nearly as far north as the equator. By the time their webbed feet touch sand, many are gaunt and exhausted, often having lost three-quarters of their body weight. Even more have died.

"This year is completely anomalous," said Lauro Barcellos, 51, an oceanographer who founded a rehabilitation center for penguins in southern Brazil. ". . . I've worked in this field for 35 years, and I have never seen anything like this."

Zoos here are building new storage spaces for the penguins. Lifeguards are learning how to give them first aid. Scientists are using satellites to track their movements. Animal lovers, such as Breves, are taking in survivors to help out the overwhelmed zoos and marine centers.

Next week, Brazilians plan to load 50 penguins onto a navy ship to begin their journey home. While some scientists have suggested that climate change may be playing a role in the penguin invasion, as of yet the basic question remains unanswered: What exactly is going on?

"Nobody is actually really sure about this," said Ricardo Burgo Braga, a graduate student in polar biogeography in southern Brazil who has begun studying the phenomenon.

It is normal for Magellanic penguins, which spend months in the ocean, to leave their colonies in southern Argentina and ride the plankton-rich frigid waters of the Falkland Current, which flows north up the coast of South America from Antarctica, in search of sardines. The eddies from a second current, the Benguela of southwest Africa, travel across the Atlantic toward Brazil. While the penguins would normally turn back when they hit the warmer Benguela waters, the current has been "exceptionally cold" this year, Braga said. Adding to this, the Falkland Current, fortified by strong winds, has been particularly powerful.

"This is a regular situation, but it's the intensification of this that we're trying to understand," Braga said.

While climate change has been implicated in melting polar ice caps and the transformation of parts of the Amazon rain forest to drier savannah lands, some scientists say there is not enough data on how weather changes are driving these currents.

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