Gentoo penguins are tough generalists and are capable to withstand the harsh Antarctic climate. However, the tremendous force of volcanic eruptions, as had happened on Deception Island, had put colonies close to extinction several times over the last 7,000 years. This is the result of a study conducted by researchers from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which they published recently in Nature Communications.

Gentoo penguins are the third largest penguin species. They are actually a subantarctic species but have expanded further south and even onto Antarctica itself for breeding. Picture: Stefan Gerber
Gentoo penguins are the third largest penguin species. They are actually a subantarctic species but have expanded further south and even onto Antarctica itself for breeding. Picture: Stefan Gerber

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 sediment cores 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 volcanic eruptions. It took, on average, between 400 and 800 years for it to re-establish itself sustainably."

Todays Deception Island is the remains of an ancient volcano. It is one of the few places in the world, where people actually can get into the caldera. Seemingly peaceful, the volcano is dormant and researchers expect an eruption again. Picture: Michael Wenger
Todays Deception Island is the remains of an ancient volcano. It is one of the few places in the world, where people actually can get into the caldera. Seemingly peaceful, the volcano is dormant and researchers expect an eruption again. Picture: Michael Wenger

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 penguin populations 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."

Volcanic islands pose an ideal breeding spot due to little snow cover and enough food in the ocean as observed around South Shetland Islands. Still, the threat of eruptions looms over the colonies. Picture: Michael Wenger
Volcanic islands pose an ideal breeding spot due to little snow cover and enough food in the ocean as observed around South Shetland Islands. Still, the threat of eruptions looms over the colonies. Picture: Michael Wenger

Source: British Antarctic Survey