Ancient Poop Reveals The Murderous Saga Of Penguins And Volcanoes

Gentoo penguins marching on a 'highway'. Arturo de Frias Marques/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0

Pretty much everyone loves penguins, and similar numbers of the populace also love volcanoes. This poses a bit of an allegiance problem, because – as a new Nature Communications study has revealed – they have been enemies for a very long time, with the latter spending much of its time slaughtering the former.

Although this phenomenon of penguin-killing eruptions has been documented several times before, this new study reveals that the war between volcanically active Deception Island and the Gentoo penguin-populated Ardley Island goes back at least 7,000 years – and, rather wonderfully, this was discovered by looking at a lot of extremely old penguin poop.

A team of scientists led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) were poking around Ardley Island recently, looking at the ancient sedimentological records for signs of historic climate change and sea level fluctuations. They stumbled across a fair bit of penguin guano too, and, as it so happened, they found layers of volcanic ash in it.

content-1491992854-steve.jpgBy comparing the quantity of the famously pungent penguin leavings to the appearance of layers of volcanic ash birthed by the nearby Deception Island, the researchers were able to work out how Gentoo populations changed whenever a significant eruption took place.

As is being grimly documented today elsewhere across the Southern Hemisphere, volcanic ash is a big no-no for penguins, particularly the floofy babies. The ash is dense, abrasive and toxic, and tends to suffocate anything that breathes enough of it in. If the little critters avoid any respiratory problems, they may simply be buried by it. Nesting sites are also vulnerable to turning into a “penguin Pompeii”.

Looking at the sediment record, the team found that over the last 7,000 years, Deception Island erupted profusely at least three times – and shortly after each event, Ardley’s Gentoos were almost completely wiped out. It took them around 400 to 800 years to recover each time to sustainable levels.

 “Changes in penguin populations on the Antarctic Peninsula have been linked to climate variability and sea-ice changes,” Dr Claire Waluda, penguin ecologist from BAS, said in a statement. However, “the potentially devastating long-term impact of volcanic activity has not previously been considered.”

The fact that the penguins recovered each time is indubitably impressive, but it’s worth pointing out that Deception Island’s volcanic peak is still active today, and that another explosive event, combined with the exacerbating effects of climate change, may finally prove too much for them.

Penguins versus Volcanoes. BAS via YouTube

Image in text: Gentoo poop - the secret to good science. Steve Roberts/BAS

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