A woman who grew up in Tuolumne County and studied biology at Columbia College is now a lead scientist for a nonprofit studying the effects of climate change on Adélie penguins in Cape Crozier, Antarctica, more than 8,000 miles south of Sonora.

Annie Schmidt and her colleagues with Point Blue Conservation Science were consulted about the upcoming G-rated Disneynature film “Penguins,” which tells the dramatized story of Steve, an Adélie penguin in Antarctica.

She said they were asked to offer feedback on scientific accuracy. They responded with more accurate information about Adélie penguins and their breeding, to clarify details.

She hasn’t seen the final version of the film, but thinks it “is really beautiful and it’s really funny and it highlights the comedic sides of their existence” in a harsh, unforgiving landscape.

A portion of the proceeds from the first week of ticket sales nationwide will go towards penguin conservation efforts, Schmidt said..

“My favorite thing about Adélie penguins is their spunky attitude,” Schmidt said Thursday. “They are not afraid of people and they’re not afraid of their environment. They face the harshest conditions on the planet and they thrive and you have to admire their hardiness and their pluck. Their main predators are leopard seals.”

Schmidt is 37, she was born in Seattle, Washington, and she and her family came to Sonora when she was 3. They moved to Tuolumne city when she was 4 or 5 years old.

She and her four sisters were home-schooled by their mom, Mary Anne Schmidt, and when she turned 16 she started taking biology classes at Columbia College, from 1998 to 2000. Her favorite biology teachers were Jerry Hodge and Dr. Micha Miller. She later completed her bachelors of science in marine biology at University of California, Santa Cruz, and earned her PhD in ecology at UC Davis.

Near the South Pole

Schmidt is based in Ventura and since November 2013 she spends several months each year at Cape Crozier Adélie Penguin Rookery on Ross Island, south of New Zealand. It’s the coldest, southernmost place on the South Pole continent where penguins continue to survive and thrive. Antarctica is nearly completely covered with ice, it’s the coldest place on Earth, and it’s the world’s fifth-largest continent. Antarctica has no trees or bushes. The only plants that can live there, in a place that cold, are moss and algae.

When Schmidt is in Antarctica she’s there during the South Pole summer, the warmest months of the year, October to January, when it’s still very cold and her favorite things include her down jacket, hot coffee, and Cheez-Its, the regular, orange-colored Cheez-Its. Daytime highs can get up to 8 degrees Celsius, around 46 Fahrenheit, and nighttime lows can fall to minus 30 degrees Celsius, or 22 below zero Fahrenheit.

“Our project we’re studying, we’ve been working on Ross Island for more than 20 years,” Schmidt said. “We just finished our 23rd season. Climate change is definitely impacting penguin populations. We’re basically going back every year and following the same individual penguins and we’re tracking them throughout their lifetimes and asking questions about how environmental conditions are affecting individuals and then how that scales up to impacting populations.”

The penguin colonies she works with are the farthest south in their range on Earth. Schmidt said what they’re finding is their populations at Cape Crozier Adélie Penguin Rookery are doing very well.

Colony still growing

The Cape Crozier colony is still growing and scientists are trying to determine if the trend will continue and if that location will be suitable as a refuge for the species in general as the climate continues warming.

“We know further north in Antarctica where it’s warmer,” Schmidt said, “we know penguin colonies are declining over the past couple of decades.”

Schmidt is Antarctica program leader for Point Blue Conservation Science. She manages Adélie Penguin Ecology research at Cape Crozier, one of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world.

She and her team are trying to answer questions including how penguin-nesting habitat influences breeding success, how climate change may affect penguin-nesting habitat, and how individuals vary in their responses to the changes.

She focuses on Adélie penguins and she also helps monitor some Emperor penguins on Ross Island.

Scientists say Adélie penguins and Emperor penguins both belong to the same taxonomic family, Spheniscidae, with similarities and differences. They’re flightless birds adapted to, extremely agile, and adept in cold water and Antarctic conditions. Adélie penguins stand up to 27 inches tall and weigh 8 to 11 pounds. Emperor penguins can stand 45 inches tall and taller, and they can weigh 48 to 80 pounds.

Both Adélie penguins and Emperor penguins live in the Antarctic only. Both species hunt the Antarctic Ocean. They eat a range of fish, crustaceans, cephalopods like octopus and squid, and shrimp-like amphipods.

Adélie penguins feed mainly on krill, some Antarctic silverfish, lantern fish, squid and more. They both live in large colonies and are known to be extremely social. Their colonies can contain thousands of members living and hunting together. During breeding season, males and females of both species form monogamous pairs and raise their chicks together.

Penguin misconceptions

Common misconceptions some people have about penguins include the notion that they mate for life, but they do not, Schmidt said. Adélie penguins sometimes keep the same mate for a year or two in a row, but most will have more than two mates in their lifetimes.

“People also often think penguins nest on ice,” Schmidt said. “The emperor penguins do nest on ice, but Adélie penguins and most other penguins do not nest on ice. They nest on land. They need snow-free, ice-free land to build their nests. They make their nests out of pebbles and little rocks.”

A Adélie penguin, freshly hatched, can weigh only a few ounces, like 100 grams, Schmidt said. They have down and little fluffy feathers. To keep the little ones warm, adult penguins of both sexes have a brood patch, a bare patch of skin on their stomach that has a lot of blood flow. They put that against their eggs and their chicks to keep them warm.

Schmidt emphasized her work with Point Blue Conservation Science is team-oriented and she and her colleagues stand on the shoulders of other researchers who came before them, including team members David Ainley, Ph.D., of H.T. Harvey Associates, who has been doing research in the Antarctic since the 1970s, Dr. Katie Dugger of Oregon State University, and Grant Ballard and Amelie Lescroël, both of Point Blue Conservation Science.

Logistics support and funding for Point Blue Conservation Science at Cape Crozier comes from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Antarctic Program.

The Disneynature film opens Wednesday.

“Bringing attention to the species and having people care about them is always beneficial,” Schmidt said.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.