Cover story: Penguins behaving badly

After 24 years I have finally completed my PhD after starting my research on penguins and other seabirds in 1990. Oh I was awarded my PhD in 1994 but the final piece of research from that study was published this week in the journal Cladistics. Just to match the gravitas of the situation some photos of penguins that we had sent in were used on the cover of the journal. It’s a curious fact about scientific data that some data can be out of date (or superceded) before the study is even completed whereas other data can be as relevant 100 years later. Luckily, my penguin behaviour data was of the long-lived variety. My PhD, at the University of Otago, looked at trait evolution in seabirds. One part of the research was on coevolution of feather lice and seabirds while the other was on behaviour evoultion in the same seabirds. I submitted and defended my thesis in 1993/1994, a time when Clinton was running for president, the biggest earning film was a Disney film (The Lion King), the soccer world cup was about to take place and Russian troops were being ordered into a former soviet area (Chechnya).

I took up a lecturing position at Lincoln University where I busily published my PhD research over the next few years. My last chapter to publish was one in which I looked at whether penguin behaviours are passed down over evolutionary time from one generation to the next. The short answer was not so much, certainly compared to pretty much all other groups looked at. However, to really answer this question I needed to have a good estimate for penguin phylogeny (how they are related). In 1994 I didn’t have one. Over the next decade I worked with a number of people to collect penguin samples for molecular analyses and this culminated in a reliable penguin tree in 2006. I blew the dust off my penguin behaviour data and went to work. Some of the analyses were still not sophisticated enough to answer some of the questions that I had but by around 2010 there were tests available that I could use. I analysed the data, got my results and wrote up my manuscript. Basically penguins behave badly in the sense that their behaviour does not mirror their evolution but seems more constrained by living in a marine environment. You can read more about it in the EcoLincNZ article “Southern Accent, penguin descent“. By around mid 2011 I was able to submit my work to the journal Cladistics.

And then my coauthors, my former supervisors Graham Wallis (University of Otago) and Russell Gray (University of Auckland) and my colleague with interests in behavioural evolution (and one of my groomsmen!) Martyn Kennedy (University of Otago), waited. And waited. And waited. After repeatedly checking with the editor we finally got our reviews back 16 months later!

Yellow-eyed penguins: still chilling

And they weren’t too bad, just a few changes here and there and more on what we were calling homology (i.e. how did we know that behaviours in different species were the same behaviour). We took three months to re-draft things and then got it back to Cladistics with some penguin photos where it was accepted in April 2013. The paper was available online around July 2013. The editor liked the penguin photos and decided to use them on the cover of our issue and, finally, in May 2014, the paper has been published! Although this has been an exceptionally slow process it does illustrate that research, and papers coming from it, does not just appear overnight. Despite the slow progress there is an undeniable buzz about seeing your work published and an even bigger one in seeing it on the cover of a respectable journal (impact factor 5!). So in 2014 my PhD work is done.  A Clinton is running for president, the biggest earning film is a Disney film (Frozen), the soccer world cup is about to take place and Russian troops are being ordered into a former soviet area (Crimea). Talk about behavioural traits not changing over generations….

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