Most of us wouldn’t think to look for penguins in a hot desert, but every year along a windswept edge of coastal Patagonia, hundreds of thousands of Magellanic penguins gather to breed at Punta Tombo, Argentina. It is the largest penguin colony in the world outside of Antarctica, and for the past thirty-odd years, biologist Dee Boersma has followed them there.
My wife and I joined Dee’s team for six months in 2008, and in Penguins in the Desert, I chronicle a season in the remarkable lives of both the Magellanic penguins of Punta Tombo and the scientists who track their every move. For Dee, the penguins are ecosystem sentinels. At the colony’s peak, more than a million birds bred there, but now less than half as many do. In confronting this fact, Dee tackles some of the most urgent issues facing penguins and people today. What is the best way to manage our growing appetite for fish? How do we stop catastrophic oil spills from coating birds? How will we address the looming effects of climate change?
But as El and I spent more and more time with the penguins and the scientists in the field, other equally pressing questions came to mind. What is it like to be beaten by a penguin? Or bitten by one? How can a person be so dirty for so many months on end? All of could be summed up by perhaps the most pressing question of all: What does it mean to know an animal, and how do you grapple with the consequences of that knowing?
(Oregon State University Press, 2018)