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Penguins on leashes stroll Brazilian beaches

Whether they're following the anchovies, or adapting to other changes in their environment, these temperate birds are finding their way north.

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This gorgeous coastal resort is famous for surf, seafood, and the influx of visitors who come here to enjoy a carefree summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Visitors this year should prepare themselves for some strange sights: Sunny Saquarema has become a playground for penguins.

Like sun-seeking tourists, the stocky little birds are abandoning the colder climes of Patagonia in Argentina, and heading for the beach, causing consternation and amusement among locals.

Surfers tell of riding the waves, only to look up and see a penguin swimming alongside. Fishermen can't work because so many penguins are getting caught up in their nets. People are even taking the animals home as pets.

"We always get them arriving here," says Valdir Ramos, the biologist in charge of rescuing the peripatetic penguins. "But this year it's ridiculous."

A few years ago, a dozen or so stray Magellanic penguins would find themselves thousands of miles adrift in the seas off Saquarema, a quiet coastal resort two hours east of Rio de Janeiro. In 1999 the number rose to 50. This year more than 250 penguins have turned up.

Experts are unsure why the birds are suddenly arriving north in such numbers. One theory is that geographic or climate changes are prompting the animals to set up colonies in more northern climes. Another more likely suggestion is that the anchovies they feed on are coming farther north than usual and that the penguins are simply following them.

Equally mysterious: Why are the animals appearing only in Rio and not in other areas along Brazil's southern coast? Mr. Ramos jokes that the penguins are not stupid, they want to spend some time on the famously golden beaches that make the sultry Brazilian city one of the world's premier holiday destinations.

And he is right when he says the ones who make it to the sand are the lucky ones. The majority of those that leave Argentina do not last the distance, and most either wash up dead or die soon after coming ashore. Those that do survive are exhausted after swimming more than 1,800 miles, and a large number have skin diseases, are weak through starvation, or have injuries inflicted by whales, sharks, or other ocean predators.


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