Antarctic penguin colony repeatedly decimated by volcanic eruptions

April 11, 2017, British Antarctic Survey
Gentoo penguins climbing slopes to the nesting colony on Ardley Island. Credit: Stephen Roberts

One of the largest colonies of gentoo penguins in Antarctica was decimated by volcanic eruptions several times during the last 7,000 years according to a new study. An international team of researchers, led by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), studied ancient penguin guano and found the colony came close to extinction several times due to ash fall from the nearby Deception Island volcano. Their results are published this week in Nature Communications.

Ardley Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula, is currently home to a population of around 5,000 pairs of gentoo penguins. Using new chemical analyses of penguin guano extracted in sediment cores from a lake on the island, the researchers unraveled the history of the penguin colony. Climate conditions around Ardley Island have been generally favourable for penguins over the last 7,000 years and the team had expected the local population to show minor fluctuations in response to changes in climate or sea ice. The surprising result was that the nearby Deception Island volcano had a far greater impact than originally anticipated.

Lead author Dr Steve Roberts from BAS says: "When we first examined the we were struck by the intense smell of the guano in some layers and we could also clearly see the volcanic ash layers from nearby Deception Island. By measuring the sediment chemistry, we were able to estimate the population numbers throughout the period and see how penguins were affected by the eruptions. On at least three occasions during the past 7,000 years, the penguin population was similar in magnitude to today, but was almost completely wiped out locally after each of three large . It took, on average, between 400 and 800 years for it to re-establish itself sustainably."

Volcanic ash layers in lake sediment cores extracted from Kiteschee Lake on Fildes Peninsula. The ash layers shown are associated with comparatively small eruptions from Deception Island in the last c. 2000-3000 years. The largest eruptions preserved in our lake sediment records from Fildes Peninsula and Ardley Island occurred at c. 7,000 years ago and c. 5,500-4,500 years ago and deposited over a metre of airfall and reworked ash in some lake sediment cores. Credit: Stephen Roberts and Emma Pearson.

Dr Claire Waluda, penguin ecologist from BAS says: "This study reveals the severe impact volcanic eruptions can have on penguins, and just how difficult it can be for a colony to fully recover. An eruption can bury penguin chicks in abrasive and toxic ash, and whilst the adults can swim away, the chicks may be too young to survive in the freezing waters. Suitable nesting sites can also be buried, and may remain uninhabitable for hundreds of years."

The techniques developed in this study will help scientists to reconstruct past changes in colony size and potentially predict how other penguin populations may be affected elsewhere. For example, the chinstrap penguins on Zavodovski Island, which were disturbed by eruptions from the Mt Curry volcano in 2016.

Waluda continues: "Changes in on the Antarctic Peninsula have been linked to climate variability and sea-ice changes, but the potentially devastating long-term impact of volcanic activity has not previously been considered."

Explore further: New study reveals what penguins eat

More information: Past penguin colony responses to explosive volcanism on the Antarctic Peninsula, Nature Communications (2017). nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/ncomms14914

Related Stories

New study reveals what penguins eat

February 15, 2017

The longest and most comprehensive study to date of what penguins eat is published this month. The study, published in the journal Marine Biology, examines the diets of gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) at Bird Island, South ...

Study shows mixed fortunes for Signy penguins

October 27, 2016

A forty year study on a remote Antarctic island shows that while populations of two penguin species are declining, a third is increasing. Analysis of census data from Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands reveals that, ...

Rise and fall of prehistoric penguin populations charted

June 12, 2014

A study of how penguin populations have changed over the last 30,000 years has shown that between the last ice age and up to around 1,000 years ago penguin populations benefitted from climate warming and retreating ice. This ...

Recommended for you

Triplefin fish found to have controlled iris radiance

February 21, 2018

A team of researchers with the University of Tübingen in Germany has found an example of a fish that is able to control light reflected from organs next to its pupils—a form of photolocation. In their paper published in ...

New insight into plants' self-defense

February 21, 2018

Chloroplasts are the ultimate green machines—the parts of plant cells that turn sunlight into food in a fairly famous process known as photosynthesis.

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gkam
3 / 5 (8) Apr 11, 2017

Decimation means reduction by 10%.

Davy_Crockett
5 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2017
Read further than the headline and you find the BAS study likely did not indicate decimation, but the confusion is not truly resolved. This is likely a misuse of language that unfortunately, casts dispersion on the veracity of the whole piece. In the context of science journalism, it is a disheartening mistake.
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 11, 2017
Reading beyond the headline is what prompted the comment.
Davy_Crockett
not rated yet Apr 14, 2017
Language changes with common usage. I wrote "you" when I should have written "one" although that is going out of style. Mistakes are made and confuse things as well. Did I say "dispersion?" Of course, I meant "aspersion."

"Decimate" is a new popular word. We students who sweated it out in Latin class while others played ball or walked their dogs groan when we see such words misused. It's like saying "indexes" instead of "indices." A 'bad grammar' bong goes off.

No doubt soon we will read of Walruses in the Aleutian islands being eviscerated by a lack of food. That is also a ten cent word that means something bad. Such is the evolution of language.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.