Sep 25, 2012

By Priscila Korb

“Everybody loves penguins!” said Dr. Heather Lynch, assistant professor of ecology and evolution.

Though not everyone may love penguins, Dr. Lynch has definitely shown interest in them, specifically the chinstrap penguins of Antarctica.

Dr. Lynch, who has only been at Stony Brook for two years, has been working on gathering data on the diversity and abundance of Antarctic wildlife for almost 20 years.

Over the summer, Dr. Lynch and her team published a paper in Polar Biology confirming the decline in the chinstrap penguin population in the Antarctic Deception Island, according to Lynch. “Most people were concerned that the decline was caused by an increase in visitation,” said Lynch. “I was not ready to place blame on tourism. Then we found out it was due to climate change.”

In addition to using the data that was received from the four scientists on Lynch’s team who went to Antarctica by boat to do a complete biological census, Lynch used satellite imagery to observe the penguins for herself. “Just using the satellite, I was able to estimate the penguin abundance,” she said. “The cruise cost $75,000 and took 12 weeks, the satellite cost nothing to use and I can do it in four hours. It’s a shift in the way we can monitor hard work.”

This semester Dr. Lynch has brought her penguin research to Stony Brook. Since last January, she has been analyzing penguin voice recordings in the lab with Christina Leung, a junior math major who will be changing her major to biology.

“We had automated stations which recorded 20 minutes of audio everyday,” said Lynch. “We can use the chick calls to age chicks based on the frequency and use this to determine the timing of breeding.”

Leung has been working on listening to the chick calls of chinstrap penguins and recording the frequency to determine if there is a difference in the frequencies based on the penguin’s age. She became involved in this project in the spring of her sophomore year when she took BIO 204. During the course she met an instructor who recommended her to Dr. Lynch’s new lab. Dr. Lynch was eager to get students involved.

“Students who are in math, computer science, etc., don’t realize they have opportunities in life science labs. Life science students would kill to have that kind of experience,” said Lynch.

Both Lynch and Leung encourage all students to try to work in a lab. Her advice is simple: “Keep trying. Don’t give up.”