Marine scientist at Ski Dubai to study penguins ahead of polar expedition

American expert Dr Brent Stewart is studying Dubai's birds as part of a wider project to help the global penguin population.

Ski Dubai’s Snow Penguins programme aims to educate the public about the species. Sarah Dea / The National
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DUBAI // It may seem an unlikely destination for a penguin researcher, but Dubai is playing a key role in a study of the birds.

Dr Brent Stewart, a leading American marine scientist, has spent the past four days at Ski Dubai studying its population of gentoo and king penguins ahead of a planned three-week expedition to South Georgia, a polar island in the southern Atlantic near Antarctica.

His expedition will start in the middle of next month and is being funded by a Dh500,000 grant from Dubai’s indoor ski slope.

Dr Stewart will study and record penguin calls, which are unique to each bird and enable them to recognise each other even among thousands of others.

He will compare those recordings with ones made during his time at Ski Dubai.

“One of the many mysteries of the species is how they are able to differentiate each other from among thousands of other individuals,” said Tom Scheffer, the operations manager of Ski Dubai. “Even here, our penguins call each other and they know exactly who is who.”

By comparing recordings between males and females and between captive and wild birds, Dr Stewart is hoping to learn more about how their calls enable breeding pairs and parents and offspring to identify each other.

He will study differences in the birds’ plumage and how these change with age and other factors.

Dr Stewart will also assess the size of the South Georgia colony. He will use a drone to fly slowly over the birds, which will help to provide an accurate population count.

The study, Mr Scheffer said, would help to determine whether the birds were being affected by climate change.

Globally, king penguin populations are considered stable but scientists are concerned that a warming climate could have an impact on them.

Dr Stewart is expected to return to Dubai at the end of the year to share his findings.

The collaboration is part of Ski Dubai’s Snow Penguins programme, which aims to educate visitors about the species and the threats facing them in the wild.

“It made perfect sense for us to put our money where our mouth is and provide funding for this,” Mr Scheffer said. “We are all very excited about the research and looking forward to having Dr Stewart back to Dubai later this year.”

Dr Stewart, a senior research scientist at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in California, has more than 25 years experience studying large marine mammals, sharks, sea turtles and marine birds.

His research has taken him on expeditions to Greenland, Iceland, the Maldives, Western Australia and Russia’s Lake Baykal.

He has been part of a team searching for a species of freshwater dolphin in China’s Yangtze River and last year pioneered the use of radio-frequency identification tags, a more affordable alternative to satellite tracking, to study the migrations of whale sharks.