Ancient Mummified Penguins Found in Antarctica Warn About Climate Change Effects

New research into the mass death of Adélie penguins raises concerns for current colonies.

Several large caches of penguin carcasses have been re-examined to determine their cause of death and the results suggest another mass death event may be close. Carbon dating of the mummified penguin corpses date the dead penguins to two different ages. 

One set seems to have died 750 years ago and another about 200 years ago. Both mass die-offs occurred over a ten year period. The research conducted by Zhou Qing Xie and Liguang Sun at the University of Science and Technology of China shows that the penguins died in both instances due to abnormally high rainfall and snow levels. 

Climate change may bring on high rainfall conditions warns researchers

The research was done on penguins found at Long Peninsula in East Antarctica, currently, home to about 100,000 Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). Increased precipitation levels have been identified as a side effect of global warming and the researchers warn another mass penguin die-off could be imminent. 

“The recent climate trend in Antarctica, including enhanced [weather] patterns and increased precipitation, suggests that the risk of penguin mortality events is likely to increase.”

“The recent climate trend in Antarctica, including enhanced [weather] patterns and increased precipitation, suggests that the risk of penguin mortality events is likely to increase,” wrote the authors. The mass deaths are not caused directly by the rain but from an increase in water in the air. 

Carbon dating of the soil around the mass death sites suggests that there was a shift in the wind pattern in the Southern Ocean that blows wet air to East Antarctica. It was this wet air that caused an increase in precipitation which in turn caused erosion and disturbance of nesting sites. 

The increased wetness also affected the population of penguin chicks. At a young age, penguin chicks lack the feathers they need to survive extreme cold and so are susceptible to getting sick in wet conditions. 

Increased snow also makes it difficult for parents to find suitable positions for nests. Adélie penguins are found exclusively on the Antarctic continent and its surrounding coastal islands. 

Cute creatures build nests with stones

In winter they live in the seas and return to the coast when the snow has melted. The penguins feed on tiny sea creatures similar to krill but also eat small fish and squid. 

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Biology

Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze?: A Remarkable Evolutionary Adaptation

They hunt in shallow waters but have been observed deep diving on occasion. Adélies breed in October in the springtime. 

They live in large communities known as colonies which can include thousands of birds.

The penguins build nests and stabilize them by lining them with stones. 

In early Spring, before the Antarctic ice breaks up, the penguins may have to walk more than 50km to reach the water's edge.

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