Penguins, Climate Change and great Conversation over Coffee with Dr. Nigella Hillgarth

Posted on August 2, 2017


Cuppa Coffee, Traveller Street, Boston, MA 02118

July 6, 2017


Nigella Hillgarth talked effortlessly about penguins, climate change and environmental optimism at a W20 meeting on a rainy Wednesday evening in Cambridge in May. She is the most amazing presenter I have ever seen, there were no projectors digital images, or other visuals just her voice. She captivated the whole room with detailed descriptions of penguins in Antarctica (South Pole) and contrasted them with birds near the equator in the Galápagos Islands, and basically taught me that there are no penguins in the North Pole. The Arctic has Polar bears! In less than an hour I could visualize the terrain differences of penguin’s homes, characteristic difference the way they looked, acted, kinda like a movie but with no images. Her story telling took me back to elementary school where we would sit round and listen to stories with clear crisp descriptions. Wow, sitting there I knew I had to interview this brilliant penguin expert, so I gave her my card, got her contact info. and pestered her to come out for coffee – how exciting!!! Now some of you are wondering what’s the connection with Seagrass? Do penguins eat seagrass? or live near them? No, not particularly. I just had to ask Nigella a million questions!!!

NA: What are you passionate about?

NH: The environment & conservation.

NA: Like preserving a place?

N: Preservation is usually when you don’t touch a place. I like to think conservation is when the needs of people and the environment are considered together. Today preservation is tough, focusing our energy on conservation will yield better results.


NA: Why penguins?

NH: Penguins are great birds to study. like many birds it is relatively easy for us to study their ecology and cue into the way they use color and movement in behavior.

NA: Are Penguins really descendants of dinosaurs?

NH: Yes, like all birds

NA: What did you study at school?

NH: Evolutionary Biology, my PHD was in studying how sexual selection drives the evolution of secondary sex characters in Pheasant populations. A well known example of secondary sex characters is the long, beautiful Peacock’s tail.

NA: Hmm..what does that mean?

NH: Well, like the male peacocks, pheasants have these beautiful markers, a long tail and bright colors to attract female mates. For example, the brighter their feathers are and the better they display (dance) the healthier they are. So the females go for the fittest (healthiest) male because there is greater potential for their chicks to survive.

NA: Like Darwin’s Evolutionary thing?

NH: Yes, what is often called the ‘survival of the fittest’. In peacocks and pheasants, the male does not help the female look after the young in any way, so the pheasant females mate with the fittest males in order to have chicks that have a better chance of surviving. They are not interested in the other males around, they are only want to find the best genes around to increase survival in their chicks.

NA: Wow, are all female birds like this?

NH: Most bird species (90%) Only a few percent are polygamous like pheasants and have several mates, like most bowerbirds for example. The majority of birds are monogamous, like robins and both the male and female help to raise the young. Some species including swans and penguins mate for life – although divorce is not unknown!

Penguins beautiful adapted for swimming. Their wings have evolved to become more like efficient flippers in the water and of course they can no longer fly. They are still very aerodynamic in water, and graceful swimmers.


NA: What are your main concerns with penguins today?

NH: The distribution of their food is changing or disappearing. They don’t eat seagrass but they do eat small shrimp called krill or small fish and squid. It varies depending on the species of penguin and where they live. Several types of penguins living in Antarctica, such as the Adelie penguins, eat large amounts of krill and as the oceans get warmer the krill is not always found in the traditional places. It is so cold in the winter in Antarctica that the sea freezes forming sea ice. Krill eats tiny single celled plants that live under sea ice called phytoplankton. Disappearing sea ice is one reason the krill are disappearing.

Some penguins live in more temperate places such as South America and eat fish like sardines and anchovies. Magellanic penguins, for example, eat sardines or other small fish. They have to swim further and further to find the fish. With the oceans heating up, these small fish are swimming to colder waters.

NA: This is what happened to the Cod here in MA too right, they all swam North..

NH: Yes, Cod is a more complex story, we also overfished them, but they do prefer cooler waters.


NA: So, Penguins follow food source?

NH: Yes, they can travel several hundred miles for fish, physically this is draining on all the breading penguins as both male and female penguins collect fish to bring back to the growing chicks

NA: What happens if they can’t swim anymore, or it’s just too far?

NH: Well, penguin colonies get smaller as the chicks will not get enough food, or they may form new colonies elsewhere.

NA: What were the other factors you mentioned at your W20 presentation?

NH: Human Disturbances. Well, for example the little Blue Penguins that live by people in Australia and New Zealand, get chased and even killed by dogs. Their nesting sites are also disturbed. In Patagonia tourists can sometimes get too close to the nesting penguins and disturb them but climate change is probably more of a problem for these birds. Climate change results in more storms and the Magellanic penguin chicks are getting flooded in the nests.

NA: So, you are seeing shifts in penguin populations due to climate change?

NH: Yes absolutely Fluctuations in weather: As I mentioned shifts in climate lead to unpredictable weather in some areas where penguins nest such as Patagonia often leading to flooding.  Also as the ocean heats up food can be much harder for penguins to find and this can seriously impact their ability to have chicks. Climate change is really happening and is a huge problem for the environment including penguins and seagrass.

NA: So what do we do?

NH: We can increase resilience in the environment by removing other damaging things we have control over. We can’t change what damage we have done with all the CO2 in the atmosphere, but we can stop putting more C02 into the atmosphere and also help the environment be more resilient to the impacts of climate change. We can reduce disturbance and pollution as well as unregulated development, and control overfishing.

So much seagrass meadows are destroyed by coastal development and pollution. Having policies to protect these areas are key.

NA: You really are concerned with warming oceans and its impact on many species?

NH: Yes, we need restoration efforts for many coastal habitats. For example seagrass restoration is crucial in that this habitat will help many other species cope better with warming oceans.

NA: It’s kinda overwhelming sometimes to think about what we can do, or how we can help.

NH: We need to bring all our different skill sets to the table and do something. Reducing carbon dioxide fin the atmosphere is a harder process to tackle, but using less fertilizer and therefore less getting into the ocean is an example of something we have control. Finding alternatives to nitrates that pollute our oceans and kill off seagrass is possible and makes a difference.

NA: Are there other things we can do?

NH: Yes of course, we can make habitats safer. MARINE PROTECTED AREAS can act as a reservoir. For example, there is evidence of this working in the Cabo Pulmo in Baja, California where the local fishermen stopped fishing and protected the area over 25 years ago. The fish have returned and the fishermen make their living helping tourists dive to see the fish and the reefs. The other fishermen in the surrounding areas benefit because the fish in the reserve breed and spare fish leave the area and are available for fishing. Another example is the Phoenix Islands protected Area in the Pacific. This is an uninhabited Archipelago belonging to the people of Kiribati who own the fishing of a vast area bigger than California around the Phoenix Islands. These far sighted pacific islanders have forbidden fishing in this huge area that is nearly pristine and full of beautiful coral reefs.

NA: What about businesses?

NH: Work with local commerce. People fishing for example, their reference point of what is overfished or not has changed over the years. This is because of “Shifting Baseline”. We tend to see things through our own experiences, for example if you have never seen coral before and go snorkeling over a degraded coral reef you might say “wow this is amazing.” Which it may be, but it’s nothing like it used to be historically with thousands more sea creatures teeming with life. A majority of the coral reefs in the Carabean are degraded or dead from overfishing, pollution, invasive species disturbance and disease. Many people still enjoy the reefs and do not realize that they are a very pale shadow of what they once were.


NA: What is happening in the Gulf of Maine?

NH: Adaptation is going to be crucial. How we preserve the gulf in the 21Century in the face of climate change is key.

NA: Why what’s going on?

NH: The Gulf of Maine is heating three times faster than any other large sea in the world.

NA: That sounds wild, what is going on?

NH: The combination of increasing cold water from melting snow rivers in the north of the gulf meeting warmer water coming up from the south in warm currents creates mixing. This turbulent mixing means there is a strong upwelling of nutrients, and this makes the Gulf of Maine so full of life and biodiversity. It is a very special place for marine life. There are natural variations in temperature in the Gulf of Maine but now it is getting warmer than usual and faster.

NA: So waters warming is happening how?

NH: Warm water is carried North via the Gulf stream that originates in the Gulf of Mexico. Now the warm water is increasing in temperature above normal levels and this is a reason that the Gulf of Maine is heating so rapidly.

NA: So, this is more evidence that climate change is here?

NH: YES, the data and science suggests so.

NA: There is a lot of noise and misinformation in the media, one group of scientists says this another says do we get to the bottom of this? Also, is this done on purpose to confuse us? Leave us complacent maybe?

NH: Well it’s to do with consensus. In the beginning the theory of gravity that we now take so much for granted had no consensus. Eventually, when they reached a consensus and agreed that the evidence was so powerful, then it became accepted.

NA: What about climate change, is there consensus?

NH: Yes, absolutely, the international scientific world agrees that climate change exists and is caused by our actions not just natural fluctuations.

NA: Hmm..

NH: It doesn’t mean that we are all bad because we put all this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There is nothing inherently wrong with fossils fuels, our civilizations would not have developed the way they have without fossil fuels. We just did not understand its side effects. Now we do. On a different scale but the same idea we used to put lead in gas so engines ran more smoothly. We removed the lead from gas once we understood how bad the lead was for our health.

NA: OK now that we know better, and there is more consensus what’s next?

NH: It is really hard to persuade people of things they cannot see visually, like the atmosphere. Humans have trouble relating to things that they don’t see and that happen relatively slowly, but if we don’t do something now we only have about 30 years if that.

Already the environment is showing signs of major change. Even peoples’ health will be impacted with climate change.

In summer Heat waves are becoming more frequent in many parts of the planet and more people are dying of heat stroke than before. Also with increasingly hot summers and milder winters diseases, such as dengue fever, are spreading into areas where they could not survive before.

NA: It’s kinda sad that the word science has been removed from the EPA’s website along with a bunch of climate change data.

NH: Yes, climate scientists are dedicated people, they work hard to collect accurate data, and their results are judged by peers. If their theories are incorrect, or have problems, they will get debunked. The EPA had a great Peer review system in place.

NA: I heard that non-scientists are being brought into the offices to do peer reviews for the EPA, and scientist are being taken out, is this correct?

NH: Certainly it is true several scientists have left. Also it is really sad that we left the Paris Agreement. WE can’t ignore consensus of accurate data on climate change especially on a global level.

NA: Changing the topic to more optimistic issues, you mentioned you had gone to the Earth Optimism conference to DC in May.

NH: Yes, it was wonderful! There was a combination of speakers from around the world talking about grass roots conservation efforts to the stock market on how sustainable energy investments work. For example, the Texas Mayor of Georgetown, who is republican, decided to buy wind power for his town, because it made fiscal sense as well as environmental. Another great story from India, where Afroz Shah was frustrated with plastics and trash in his home town beach, Verova beach in Mumai, so, everyday he would go for and do some clean-up. Then his friends joined him, then his neighbors, and then strangers. This movement has spread to other towns as well. This grass roots effort is inspiring. There were so many wonderful stories of individuals; often just regular people, making change.

More can be found here:

NA: Amazing, truly wonderful things to learn about that we too can make a difference. What are your suggestions of where to start?

NH: Yes, you can make a difference in your own communities.

  1. Be mindful of pollution, try to remove or lessen the impact of plastics – for example stop using single-use plastic bags.
  2. Write phone, or email congressmen, get your voice heard so they can log you in as a number for climate change and environmental issues in general.
  3. Get together in groups, find an ocean clean up group, or seagrass conservation group, plant seagrass, convert lawns to flower gardens that don’t need fertilizers…many practical things to be done.

NA: Thinking about seagrass, what is the connection between penguins and seagrass?

NH: Both organisms are a part of an ecosystem that can be easily disrupted and destroyed by change. Penguins are inflexible and set in their ways. They eat only certain foods, they nest a certain way, so when climate change disrupts their environment – it’s really difficult to say – we will probably loose many species. Seagrass similarly cannot deal with too much pollution such as too much nitrate. The seagrass beds will die off as a result.

NA: That is sad

NH: Yes, but when we have Marine Protected Areas such as on the the coast of Virginia and in Florida, there is great success with restoring seagrass beds and flourishing marine life.

For more information go to this link:

NA: Phew, I was starting to feel hopeless. So, it’s really important to get our voice heard about Marine Protected Areas??? Where do we start is there and organization for this to get involved with or write to?

NH: Many conservation organizations are involved with marine protected areas in various ways. The place to start is joining one of the well known organizations and finding out what they are doing in this area. Start with Wild Wildlife Fund or Ocean conservancy for general information. For New England The Conservation law Foundation has been trying hard to establish some of our most important habitats in the Gulf of Maine as protected Areas,

NA: I know our oceans matter for all the sea creatures, and for diversity of plant life How does it impact us, humans?

NH: 50 % of the air we breathe comes from the oceans. The oceans play a major role controlling our weather patterns. If the oceans were all gone, we would be all dead. In the 60s we all thought the oceans were so large nothing we did could affect them. Today we know better, from plastic found in stomachs of dead birds and fish,, to waste in and on the bottom of our oceans. Today 90% of all large fish have disappeared. About one billion people, largely in developing countries, depend on seafood for their protein.

NA: This has been the most thought-provoking coffee time I have ever had, thank you for sharing all this amazing knowledge Nigella. We covered so much from issues around pollution, penguins, climate change, to us being resilient in the face of climate change. We really don’t have time to sit around and wait especially when there is great evidence pointing to our human capacity to make improvements. To practically get involved on an individual level and to write to congress people for policy change. This is great, so inspiring!!!

NH: Yes, increasing resilience of species and habitats in the face of climate change is key. Nedret, it has been great fun talking with you – thank you!me

All photos in this interview were generously shared by Nigella Hillgarth, thank you!!!

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