Can penguin poo tell the effects of climate change?
Can penguin poo tell the effects of climate change? Scientists from the Milner Centre for Evolution have just returned from a month-long expedition studying penguin colonies in the Antarctic.
Dr Jane Younger, Prize Fellow and Lecturer in the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath co-led the expedition with Dr Gemma Clucas, a seabird biologist. Along with Jane’s PhD student, Katie O’Brien, the three scientists were part of a team of nine researchers from six institutions and three countries, all studying different aspects of the penguins’ response to climate change.
The Vinson of Antarctica – a purpose-built Antarctic expedition vessel used for the trip. Credit: Vinson of Antarctica gallery.
The team stayed on board an purpose-built Antarctic expedition yacht called Vinson of Antarctica for 30 days. They explored several areas around the region including uncharted waters on the Antarctic peninsula that hadn’t been surveyed in more than 30 years.
They did a wide range of research, which included collecting penguin poo – also known as guano – an easy and non-invasive means of studying the diet of penguin colonies and how this is changing over time as the species are being squeezed by climate change and overfishing. They also used a drone to count the number of birds in each colony to monitor population trends.
The scientists studied several populations of seven different species of penguin: gentoos, kings, rockhoppers, macaronis, magellanic, chinstraps and Adélies.
Chinstrap penguins are named because of the distinctive black strap under their chin. One of seven species under investigation.
“I’ve spent many years researching penguins but this is the first time I’ve visited the West Antarctic… My research looks at the diseases and parasites that affect the different penguin populations, studying how they spread between the different species of penguins and monitoring how they are changing over time…
Using a small vessel meant we could access more areas, taking samples from regions that hadn’t been surveyed for several decades, which will give us a much better picture of what’s happening across the Antarctic… Our expedition coincided with the 100-year anniversary of Shackleton’s death, so we visited his grave on South Georgia whilst we were there…
It was fantastic to work with colleagues from a number of different institutions and we look forward to planning another similar trip in the next year or so.”
– Dr Young.
A Gentoo, of the species being studied. Credit: Bryce Robinson.
“I’ve been visiting Antarctica for the past ten years to study penguins… Most penguins, seals, and whales eat krill in Antarctica, but climate change and fishing pressure are reducing the amount of krill available to them…
My research is focused on studying penguin poo to look at how the diets of the different species are changing over time. Picking up poo from around colonies is a remarkably easy and non-invasive method to do this, and so it’s really opening up the amount of sites that we can monitor each year…
I also used a drone to count the penguins in each colony to understand how populations are changing in response to climate change.”
– Dr Clucas.
The team will now spend the next few months genetically analysing samples to determine which diseases are affecting the penguins, what they are eating, and if and how they are adapting to their environment in response to climate change. We’re looking forward to the results!
For more information on this study, or to read more research from the Milner Centre for Evolution, click here.
Can you see the brown patches? They are giant stains on the ice caused by penguin poo! Copyright: contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2016), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO