UNCW professor discovers ancient mummified penguins in Antarctica

UNCW professor discovers remains of ancient penguins in Antarctica

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A professor from UNCW discovered mummified penguin remains that are at least 800 years old on a recent trip to Antarctica.

Dr. Steven Emslie fell in love with Antarctica when he first visited in 1991 to assist a colleague with seabird and penguin research.

Emslie has returned several times, even taking UNCW students with him, to study penguins and climate change.

In research just published in the scientific journal Geology, Emslie discussed his study of remains of penguins that were hidden under ice and snow for centuries.

“This particular site is in the Ross Sea in east Antarctica and it was a very cold dry place compared to other parts of Antarctica so the preservation is even better and there was mummification,” he said. “What I found at the site were a lot of bones and mummies on the surface. Some of the penguin remains looked pretty fresh so it seems like there was a mixture of old and fresh remains and that seems strange to me at this location which hasn’t had breeding penguins reported there in the history of people going to Antarctica. So, I started to investigate more and I realized this was a site that had been exposed just recently by snowmelt that’s occurring there and that these fresh remains were actually ancient but just being re-exposed after being frozen for centuries.”

A mummified Adélie penguin revealed by snowmelt in Antarctica. (Source: Dr. Steven Emslie)
A mummified Adélie penguin revealed by snowmelt in Antarctica. (Source: Dr. Steven Emslie) (Source: Dr. Steven Emslie)

According to Emslie, perishable tissues and archaeological artifacts have been discovered in recent decades from glacial melt in Europe and North America but this is the first known occurrence of this in Antarctica.

The discovery, while fascinating, is also alarming.

“It was an exciting discovery but it does show the warming trend has now reached more of a deeper part of the Antarctic and in recent years recent trips I’ve made down there I have noticed more of an effect of warming there than previously,” he said.

However, he said his research could inform future conservation efforts.

Dr. Steven Emslie, a professor at UNCW, studies Adélie penguins. (Source: Dr. Steven Emslie)
Dr. Steven Emslie, a professor at UNCW, studies Adélie penguins. (Source: Dr. Steven Emslie) (Source: Dr. Steven Emslie)

“The Adélie penguin, the one that I am studying, they are not endangered,” he said. “There are millions of them they are actually expanding in some places because more snowmelt is opening up for them. So, they are declining in one area and staying stable or increasing in the others but we can predict that they will shift around. This is good to know because learning from the past can give us a window into the future and we can see where penguins will probably go in the future and which areas of the marine environment will be critical for the survival and sustainability. We can act to protect those areas more for their future survival and so help the conservation of the species.”

For his research, Emslie received funding from the National Science Foundation.

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