Happy Feet: Penguin Week at Real Scientists with Michelle LaRue

Huge thanks to Damien Huffer for his amazing week at Real Scientists. It’s been fascinating to see how a bioarchaeologist and anthropologist uses scientific tools to better understand our collective cultural history – as well as look at how to track stolen antiquities. It’s what a real life Indiana Jones would have to do when not out looking for artefacts himself. Be sure to follow Damien on his regular account, @DamienHuffer.


Our next curator started out studying mountain lions (and still does) but ended up tracking penguins via satellite. Dr Michelle LaRue(@drmichellelarue) is a Research Ecologist at the University of Minnesota who’ll be bringing us Penguin Week at Real Scientists. Apart from tracking penguins across ice sheets and studying cougars, polar bears and seals, Michelle is a passionate science communicator and has begun working as a speaker on ecological issues.


We asked Michelle our usual set of questions, and here she is in her own words:


I have always loved animals and been fascinated with nature, so I think I new from the time I was a kid that I’d be a scientist. I got into ecology not only because of this life-long passion but also because of an awesome professor and mentor when I was an undergraduate – his lectures made his job as an ecologist look so fun, and after taking his class my freshman year I never turned back.


I got into my current field almost by accident. I had a lot of field and GIS experience, but when I got the job that lead me to work with penguins and do research in Antarctica, I had not experience with either of those things! I was hired originally to do mapping of the Dry Valleys in Antarctica… One day I was looking at some high-resolution satellite imagery (like GoogleEarth) and my supervisor and I realized we could see individual emperor penguins sitting on the ice. It took only a second to realize we’d just stumbled upon a new way of studying polar animals.


I use high-resolution satellite imagery (like you’d see in GoogleEarth) to study the ecology and populations of polar animals, like emperor and Adelie penguins, and Weddell seals – all of which have circumpolar distributions around the Antarctic continent. The last few years of my work were focused on understanding the global distribution of the two penguin species, how climate change is impacting their populations, and even a bit of behavioral ecology. Because we know where these colonies “should” be, I am now focused on learning how these populations change through time (and with changing sea ice conditions) and how they relate to each other through metapopulation dynamics.




Penguins are what we call an indicator species for ocean health because they eat fish and krill – by understanding their populations we can gain a glimpse into what’s going on in the ocean. The Southern Ocean, where they live, is changing quite rapidly with climate change warming the waters along the Antarctic Peninsula, sea ice extent fluctuating, and commercial krill and fishing operations also potentially impacting food web dynamics in certain areas. By studying penguin population dynamics around the entire continent we can gain a more full picture of what causes their populations to change, with the ultimate goal of informing management and conservation decisions, particularly with regard to fish and krill catch limits in the Southern Ocean.


I did research on mountain lions as a master’s student and have continued that work as well. So, I also happen to be the executive director of the Cougar Network, which is the only research non-profit that studies mountain lion range expansion in North America.


Hobbies include: Photography. I absolutely love photography, though I don’t do it nearly as much as I’d like.

Ideal Day Off: My ideal day off involves exploring. I’ve traveled alone through many parts of the world and I can’t get enough of learning about the history, culture, and natural world of my current location by walking around, visiting historic neighborhoods, hiking trails, and finding good restaurants off the beaten path.

At my home in Minnesota, though, my ideal day off exploring would start with coffee on my patio and then a canoe trip with my spouse and dogs down the St. Croix River – one of the most beautiful stretches of water, I think, in the United States. The day would end with pizza and beer on the patio of our favorite restaurant.


Please welcome Michelle LaRue to Real Scientists!

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