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How do you p-p-pick out a penguin from a crowd?

Press release issued: 4 June 2004

Dr Peter Barham, a physicist at the University of Bristol has developed a special silicon identification tag for the endangered wild penguins of South Africa.

Dr Peter Barham, a physicist at the University of Bristol has developed a special silicon tag that will enable individual penguins living on the coast of South Africa to be identified without damaging their feathers. The tags, made from a stretchy rubber substance and marked with a unique identification number, fit comfortably over the wing and do not have any adverse effects on the penguin's normal behaviour.

Volunteers at conservation charity Bristol Zoo Gardens made over 80 of the high-tech tags that have now been shipped over to Robben Island, South Africa, in preparation for a team of Earthwatch volunteers to fit them onto endangered wild African penguins.

For the past four years the trials of these high-tech tags on penguins at Bristol Zoo Gardens and in the field have offered promising results, with the birds experiencing less feather damage than with traditional metal tags.  The new tags are now part of a longer-term field trial in South Africa.

Efforts by volunteers from Bristol Zoo Gardens and Earthwatch will enable field biologists from the Avian Demography Unit (ADU), Cape Town University, and the Marine Coastal Management Authority to monitor the wild population of African penguins on Robben Island which is under threat due to man's activities. Following the sinking of the MV Treasure in 2000, oil pollution threatened 40% of the world's population of African penguins and occurred during the height of their breeding season. The effects are still being realised four years later.

Duncan Bolton, General Curator at Bristol Zoo Gardens and Principle Investigator for Earthwatch said: "I have been involved with the project for a number of years and have seen first hand how vulnerable the populations around Robben Island are to these oil spills, as this area has one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. More than 10% of the population of African penguins has at one time or another been oiled, cleaned and released. Tagging and monitoring the population dynamics of these charismatic birds is essential, providing the information needed to afford them the protection they deserve."

Rob Bacon, Volunteer Co-ordinator at Bristol Zoo Gardens has been leading the project to create the bands at the Zoo. He comments: "The polymer mix is created and poured into moulds to form the band shape which will stretch over a penguin's wing. This is quite a lengthy process and has taken a couple of weeks to produce all the bands needed, which we also use here at the Zoo. But it's nice to know that these small devices will help to protect the African penguin in the wild. This shows that everyone can make a contribution to conservation."

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