Tracking Magellanic penguins’ remarkable migration


Argentine biologist Pablo García Borboroglu takes notes at a Magellanic penguin nesting site. (Photo courtesy of GPS)

In an unprecedented collaboration, specialists from public and private organizations have equipped 20 Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) with satellite transmitters and are following them electronically on their annual austral-winter migration from Argentine Patagonia to the waters of Uruguay and southern Brazil.

The research is being led by the Global Penguin Society (GPS), a penguin-conservation organization that has undertaken a variety of initiatives in New Zealand, South Africa and Chile. Also participating in the monitoring project, which received some of its funding from the National Geographic Society, are Stanford University; the Argentine Parks Administration (APN); Conicet, which is the principal government-run research institution in Argentina; and the Province of Chubut.

The project constitutes a new milestone for the Penguin Society and its founder and president, Argentine biologist Pablo García Borboroglu. Last year García Borboroglu received the Indianapolis Prize, a prestigious award given by the Indianapolis Zoo to recognize “extraordinary contributions” to animal conservation. In May, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Marc Stanley invited him to his Buenos Aires residence to celebrate GPS’s 15th anniversary and present the South Atlantic project to a large gathering of attendees, former Argentine President Mauricio Macri among them. In an interview with EcoAméricas, García Borboroglu said attention of this sort serves an important purpose.
“There are 18 penguin species in the world, all of which live in the southern hemisphere and the majority in developing countries,” he said. “So prizes are essential to give our work visibility and to garner support, which is only possible if we gain exposure and influence.”

The Magellanic penguins under study spend summers in Patagonia, making their nests on land. They then set out on a long trek to live in the northern waters off Uruguay and Brazil, where fish are more abundant in the austral winter. “They spend five months in the Atlantic Ocean and travel up to 7,000 kilometers [4,300 miles], which exposes them to threats such as [offshore] oil operations, overfishing, plastics pollution, and maritime traffic,” he says. “They can stay underwater for more than 20 minutes.”

Parsing migratory paths

The objective of the Patagonian Magellanic-penguin research project is to identify the animals’ preferred routes, the time it takes to make their journey, the places they rest during the migration, and how climate change might be affecting their migratory paths.

The progress of the 20 penguins outfitted with monitoring equipment can be followed in real time at the website of GPS, which gave the animals attention-grabbing names to spark public interest in the study—among them Lionel Messi, Taylor Swift, and Freddy Mercury.

The portion of the penguins’ migratory route off the Argentine city of Mar del Plata takes them through waters where the Norwegian company Equinor this year is conducting seismic offshore-oil exploration.

“Thirty-five years ago, when I began to be interested in penguins, 40,000 [of the animals] died every year in Patagonia because of oil spills,” García Borboroglu says. “Since then, the routes of oil vessels have shifted farther from the coast and the [penguin] mortality has practically stopped.” But with offshore oil exploration and the potential for production operations, he adds, “we’re getting worried again.”

Also causing concern is the state-controlled oil company YPF’s construction of a pipeline to move shale oil from its vast Vaca Muerta reserves at the foot of the Andes to the coast for export. The project, begun this year, involves the installation of a 600-kilometer (370-mile) conduit to the edge of San Matías Gulf in the Patagonian province of Río Negro.

In summer, the inlet’s shore hosts Argentina’s northernmost colony of Magellanic penguins and its waters serve as a breeding ground for the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis). To safeguard the habitat, the Río Negro Legislature in 1999 passed a law that gave the gulf protected status and banned oil operations there. But in 2022 the Legislature repealed the measure to allow the pipeline project.

Underwater oil pipeline

Particularly controversial are plans for an underwater section of the pipeline that will extend six kilometers (3.7 miles) into the sea to transfer points where the shale oil can be pumped aboard tanker vessels. Environmental- and social-advocacy groups challenged YPF’s plans, but were rejected last year by the Río Negro Superior Court of Justice.

“As both terrestrial and marine animals, penguins are impacted by both global threats like climate change, and local threats like habitat loss and degradation,” National Geographic researcher Luisa Arnedo told EcoAméricas in a recent interview. The South Atlantic study, she says, will be replicable in other regions: “The questions that are being researched through this project can help us understand and advance the best ways to protect other penguin species and their habitats worldwide.”

Among those at the May presentation in Buenos Aires was Florencia Gómez, public prosecutor of the Patagonian province of Chubut. During 2022 and 2023, Gómez investigated a Chubut coastal landowner who in 2021 sought to build a coastal road on his property and bulldozed hundreds of Magellanic penguin nests. “We’re confident the [sentencing phase] of the trial will take place at the end of the year,” Gómez told EcoAméricas. “I’m going to seek a four-year prison term because it has been proven that the defendant killed 105 penguins and destroyed 292 nests, a deed of great cruelty.”

She is charging animal mistreatment in connection with the nest destruction, which was originally denounced by García Borboroglu, but says reforms are needed to properly protect biodiversity in such cases. “I’m working with Greenpeace and other organizations on legislation that would create penalties for ecocide, which we define as damage from which an ecosystem cannot recover or can do so only after many years, as in this case,” says Gómez. “We’re presenting it in Congress this year.”

- Daniel Gutman

In the index: A Magellanic penguin stands at a nesting beach in the Patagonian province of Chubut. (Photo courtesy of GPS)

Luisa Arnedo
Wildlife, Science and Innovation Programs
National Geographic Society
Washington, D.C.
Pablo García Borboroglu
Global Penguin Society (GPS)
Puerto Madryn, Argentina
Documents & Resources
  1. Global Penguin Society’s real-time tracking of the 20 Magellanic penguins: link