Animal Events

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By Rowena Mynott 

October – November

The Northern Hemisphere is home to the world’s entire population of polar bears (Ursus maritimus), putting to ruin many jokes about penguin-eating polar bears (perhaps a joke familiar only in England) as penguins are mainly found in the Southern Hemisphere.  These beautiful white bears inhabit northern areas from Alaska through Canada, Norway and Denmark to Russia.

Churchill, Manitoba is located on the coast of Hudson Bay in Canada and is home to the largest gathering of polar bears anywhere in the world.  During the summer months, the bears lie in semi-hibernation in dens dug out from the soft earth.  As October approaches, they start to wake and after more than five months without eating, begin their hunt for food.  Churchill is the first place sea ice develops in Hudson Bay and it is here the polar bears gather awaiting a frozen pathway to form, thus enabling them access across the bay to hunt.

Polar bears rely heavily on sea ice, a fact that is sadly contributing to their demise.  Ringed seal (Pusa hispida) are a favourite snack of polar bears. Unfortunately for the seals, they make targets of themselves by creating holes in the ice through which to breathe.  It is here the bears lie in wait for the seals to pop up for air, grabbing hold and hauling them onto the ice with their sharp claws to feast on their blubber.  With the sea ice melting, breath holes are no longer needed by the seals.  This, of course, means no easy meals for the bears which leads to starvation and adult bears producing fewer young.

This is also the most popular place for visitors to see a polar bear.  Tundra buggies haul out over the ice each season allowing tourists and photographers first hand encounters with the bears.

November – February

Yellow-eyed penguins breed in New Zealand

Yellow eyed penguin sketch

The south island of New Zealand is the larger and less populated of the two main islands.  Its slightly more southern location gives rise to a mountainous snowy landscape in comparison to the gentle green rolling hills of the north island.

The yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) calls the south island home.  This attractive penguin is native to New Zealand and is the sole surviving species of the genus Megadyptes and indeed New Zealand’s rarest penguin species.  Given the Maori name of Hoiho, meaning ‘noise shouter’ the shrill whistle-like call is unique to each individual.

Standing 65 centimetres high it is the fourth largest penguin in the world.  At this time of year the yellow-eyed penguins are laying their eggs.  The nest, composed of earthy fabric such as sticks and grasses, is built against a solid structure such as a tree or rock.  Breeding once a year, each penguin lays two eggs per season and practicing dimorphism the birds will lay each egg three to five days apart. Despite this lag in laying time, the eggs will hatch at the same time.  Sadly only 15% of eggs survive to see adulthood due to threats such as habitat degradation, predation by dogs and other human-induced threats such as entanglement in fishing nets and a decline in fish stocks.

Habitat degradation is a major issue as these penguins exhibit site fidelity, preferring to visit the same site each year to nest.  Mating pairs are monogamous for several seasons, perhaps as many as six, however studies have shown that if one bird loses its mate, the remaining bird may miss one or two breeding seasons due to this loss.

December – August

Royal albatross colony on Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Royal Albatross

The volcanic origin of the Otago Peninsula on the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island has born majestic cliffs and a hilly vista.  Off this dramatic coastline large albatross can be seen using their three-metre wingspan to soar gracefully over the ocean.

The royal albatross (Diomedea epomophora epomophora) colony on Otago Peninsula is the only mainland breeding colony of any albatross species in the Southern Hemisphere.  At this time of the year, the adult albatross are mating and nesting, preparing for the arrival of their young.  Despite much of their time being spent at sea, albatross not only mate for life but share parenting duties.  Once the egg is laid, each bird will alternate between incubating the egg for two to eight days and spreading their wings out to sea in the hunt for food.  Lasting for around 11 weeks, the incubation period of the royal albatross is one of the longest for any bird.

These giant beauties are also one of the longest living birds in the world.  One particularly healthy adult was seen rearing her chicks at the age of 62!

Breeding only in New Zealand, the royal albatross or toroa as it is known locally holds special significance to the Maori people.  Several different tribal groups wear toroa feathers in various forms to signify support of the pacifist principles of their chiefs and prophets.

December

Pacific green turtles gather in the Galapagos to mate, socialise and lay eggs

Pacific green turtle drawing

The Galapagos Islands, 973 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, inspire wonder in many people and there is little doubt as to why.  Its 18 main islands are rich in terrestrial and marine flora and fauna, boasting visits from and claiming home to many endangered and threatened species as well as a number of endemic species.  It is also the birthplace of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, a scientific theory that changed the concept of life on Earth and gave rise to an understanding of the need for conservation.  In fact the Galapagos Islands were declared a National Park in 1959, the centenary year of the publication of Darwin’s paper.

One of the biggest attractions of the Galapagos Islands is the incredible diversity of marine life including whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, whales, marine iguanas, rays, a plethora of bird life and of course marine turtles.

The Galapagos green turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi), a subspecies of the green sea turtle, is a species endemic to the tropical waters of the Pacific.  Given this name, as it is the only species of turtle to nest on the shores of the Galapagos Islands, this darkly pigmented turtle will breed every two to three years.  As with other turtle species, eggs are laid in a nest dug out of the sand – no mean feat on the volcanic beaches of the Galapagos.  These dry, hard sands have encouraged laboring mothers to evolve new ways of digging their nests.  To prevent nest walls from collapsing and squashing their eggs, the female turtles place one rear flipper on the wall as support whilst they lay their eggs, gently covering the nest up once finished.

With an ‘Endangered Species’ tag in place these turtles are legally protected from hunting.  Sadly, poaching does exist and combined with other factors such as pollution ingestion and entanglement in fishing nets, the drop in population numbers at sites in the Galapagos is a clear indication that more protection needs to be put in place.

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