Adelie penguin on ice floe

Adélie penguins in East Antarctica died in large numbers roughly 200 and 750 years ago, probably as a result of heavy precipitation. Credit: Cultura RF/Brett Phibbs/Getty

Ecology

Caches of mummified penguins warn of climate-change impacts

Two die-offs of Adélie penguins are traced to climatic episodes similar to those expected as Earth warms.

A throng of mummified penguins in Antarctica has been linked to long stretches of abnormally heavy precipitation, which caused the birds' deaths centuries ago.

Long Peninsula in East Antarctica is currently home to about 100,000 Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae), as well as numerous abandoned penguin colonies. Zhouqing Xie and Liguang Sun at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei sampled tissue from 14 penguin carcasses found at several abandoned colonies to determine the birds’ cause of death.

Carbon dating revealed that the penguins perished in two die-offs that each lasted a decade or longer: one 750 years ago and another 200 years ago. Analysis of the sediment around the carcasses suggested that it was deposited over the course of several decades of unusually heavy rain or snow.

This precipitation pattern is becoming more common as a result of global climate change, the researchers say, which could cause more mass penguin die-offs in the future.