The Climate Scoop Is in Penguin Poop

Article excerpt

THEY WADDLE ON LAND, torpedo in water and wear adorable tuxedos. And if that isn't enough, now these flightless birds are helping researchers understand climate change. A study published last January in Geology describes how University of North Carolina Wilmington's Steven Emslie and his colleagues excavated and carbon-dated Adelie penguin debris to learn about fluctuations in Antarctica's ice ages.

Nesting in colonies of up to half a million birds, Adelie penguins often return to breed and nest in the same place they were born. One of the smallest of Antarctica's penguin species, they leave behind guano, feathers, skin, eggshells and bones, which are preserved by the region's cold, dry conditions. What's especially useful to climate change researchers is that Adelies form nesting colonies only on ice-free land with access to open water. This means that where there is evidence of nesting, the temperature at that location and at that time supported open water.

Emslie and his team carbon-dated penguin debris from 23 active and abandoned sites in the Ross Sea region. Until then, geologists didn't know exactly when the Ross ice sheet advanced and retreated. …