Polar Biology

, Volume 31, Issue 12, pp 1521–1530 | Cite as

Short-term responses of king penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus to helicopter disturbance at South Georgia

  • Kevin A. Hughes
  • Claire M. Waluda
  • Richard E. Stone
  • Martin S. Ridout
  • John R. Shears
Original Paper


The short-term behavioural effects of helicopter overflights on breeding king penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus at South Georgia were examined. Seventeen helicopter overflights were made at altitudes between 230 and 1,768 m (750–5,800 ft) above ground level. Noise from the aircraft engines and helicopter blades increased sound levels in the colony from a background level of 65–69 dB(A) to a maximum mean peak level of 80 dB(A) during overflights. Penguin behaviour changed significantly during all overflights at all altitudes compared to the pre- and post-flight periods. Pre-overflight behaviour resumed within 15 min of the aircraft passing overhead and no chicks or eggs were observed to be taken by predators during overflights. Non-incubating birds showed an increased response with reduced overflight altitude, but this was not observed in incubating birds. Variability in overflight noise levels did not affect significantly the behaviour of incubating or non-incubating birds. Penguins exhibited a reduced response to overflights as the study progressed (despite later flights generally being flown at lower altitudes) suggesting some degree of habituation to aircraft. To minimise disturbance to king penguins we recommend a precautionary approach such that overflights are undertaken at the maximum altitude that is operationally practical, or preferably are avoided altogether.


Aptenodytes patagonicus Behaviour Disturbance Helicopter King penguin Overflight 



We would like to thank the officers and crew of HMS Endurance, S. Poncet and A. Morton for their help and assistance. The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are acknowledged for supporting this project and granting permission for it to proceed. We are grateful to M. Lower, R. Davis, A. Bullmore and B. Dennis, Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, University of Southampton and B. Budenburg and R. Lilley (Tracksys Ltd., Nottingham, U.K.) for useful advice. We would also like to thank Dr A. Takahashi for useful discussions and comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kevin A. Hughes
    • 1
  • Claire M. Waluda
    • 1
  • Richard E. Stone
    • 1
  • Martin S. Ridout
    • 2
  • John R. Shears
    • 1
  1. 1.British Antarctic SurveyNatural Environment Research CouncilCambridgeUK
  2. 2.Institute of Mathematics and StatisticsUniversity of Kent at CanterburyCanterburyUK

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