Dr Louise Emmerson - seabird ecologist

Scientists of the Antarctic: Dr Louise Emmerson

Video transcript

I lead the Seabird Research Group at the Australian Antarctic Division.

We have a particular focus on the Adélie penguin, because they're commonly abundant, and they're a really good indicator on what’s going on, both in the marine and the terrestrial environment. But we also work on a range of flying seabirds, including the beautiful snow petrel and southern fulmars, and skuas and those tiny little Wilson’s storm petrels.

So the primary goal of our work is to ensure that any fisheries activities in the Australian Antarctic Territory waters, are conducted in a sustainable way for the birds.

The birds are dependent on krill, they eat a lot of krill. And so we try and understand things like, where they're foraging, what they're eating, and what their overall requirements are.

I find being in the field is where I actually have the greatest insight on what’s going on for the birds. It provides so much more insight than just looking at the data in isolation.

Sometimes we do surveys, and we could either go out in to the colonies and count the birds by hand, or we might fly over them and then take photos, and then we can count them from there.

We also do a lot of collection of poo, and we do that to understand what they're eating, and also to understand what level of parasites and disease they might have in them.

I’m always aware that it’s such a privilege as well as a responsibility, to be doing the work that I do, to actually get some understanding about these birds, when we know that no one else has ever looked at that sort of thing before. 

[end transcript]

Dr Louise Emmerson: BSc (Hons), PhD

Research interests

It was obvious from when I was a small child that my affinity for the natural world and its remarkable creatures meant that I would be drawn to ecology. My training at the University of Adelaide and the Australian National University grounded me in field and theoretical ecology, as well as applied mathematics, and demonstrated how critical insight can be gained by being in the field. My research has required intense periods of field work in remote and remarkable places including marine, red desert, and Antarctic ecosystems.

I came to the Australian Antarctic Division in 2001 to study Adélie penguin population dynamics and their key demographic drivers in East Antarctica. I now also study other Antarctic breeding seabirds including snow, Cape, Antarctic and Wilson storm petrels, skuas and southern fulmars.

My research focuses on identifying and minimising negative impacts on the birds from our activities in Antarctica and current or emerging threats. I work closely with science and policy colleagues to achieve improved conservation outcomes for the seabirds. Our data feeds into CCAMLRs ecosystem-based management approach of the Southern Ocean, through the CCAMLR Ecosystem Monitoring Program (CEMP), using seabirds as indicators and to distinguish between impacts from krill fisheries and climate change. This work will help ensure that Antarctic fisheries activities remain sustainable for the wildlife that depend on the ocean’s living resources.

As Leader of the Seabird Ecology Research group based at the Australian Antarctic Division, I ensure that the science that we do supports informed management decisions and improved conservation outcomes for Antarctic breeding seabirds.

Our core research activities include understanding the distribution and abundance of seabird breeding habitat, identifying drivers of demographic change, and exploring their foraging ecology. This includes researching what they eat, where they catch it, how much they require and how they interact with their physical and biological environment, to identify key foraging areas and avoid overlap with fisheries activities.

I am interested in the drivers of population dynamics – what governs the birds’ spatial and temporal changes – and to use this to better understand and predict population responses in a changing environment. I also undertake research on Antarctic seabird genetics and paleoecology to identify key refugia during periods of major environmental perturbations, wildlife disease, and persistent organic pollutants and microplastics contamination in seabirds.

I am keenly interested in scientific education and actively involved in classroom visits and outreach activities. I have spent much time in the South Australian desert with international students, teaching them ecology, global, social and environmental responsibilities, and encouraging greater sensitivity to and awareness of their environment.

Current projects

International representation/collaboration

  • CCAMLR Working Group on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management
  • Delegate, Scientific Committee for CCAMLR

Key outcome areas

  • Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
  • Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS)
  • Territories, Environment and Treaties, AAD

Related links

Selected publications

See Dr Emmerson's publications on Google Scholar.