The Penguin Graveyard in Antarctica

According to one analysis, these mummified penguins died as a result of the effects of climate change.
The Penguin Graveyard in Antarctica

Last update: 13 December, 2018

Apparently, there’s a massive penguin graveyard in AntarcticaA team of explorers from the University of Science and Technology of China first found the graveyard in 2016.

The mummified remains were in an excellent state of preservation on the eastern end of the Antarctic peninsula. Most of the penguins still had their skin and a lot of their feathers.

Finding this group of one hundred mummified penguins threw many scientists through a loop. There were no signs of any ancient, deadly disease that killed them off. Nor did it seem to be the work of a savage predator.

According to the team led by Dr. Liguang Sun, the most likely cause of death was climate change. There were two intense periods of rain that ended up killing thousands of penguins. When the water froze, it mummified their remains.

Adélie penguins

Penguins generally live in cold, inhospitable climates. That’s why living in the Antarctic isn’t such a problem for these animals. However, over the last 1,000 years, the global climate has been rapidly changing. Those changes lead to sudden alterations in regions that typically have stable climate patterns.

So, climate change is a life-threatening force for penguins. They’re used to the icy cold, which is also very dry. Any changes to that could seriously reduce their population.

Three adélie penguins

The Earth Science department Dr. Sun belongs to has done several research projects. They’ve found that the Antarctic has undergone at least two extremely rainy, snowy periods in the last 1,000 years.

Most of the mummified remains belonged to baby penguins. They still hadn’t fully developed their thick, waterproof feathers.

That made them more vulnerable to the cold rain and snow. If a baby penguin gets wet, the icy wind will end up causing hypothermiaDr. Sun’s team thinks that this was probably the most likely cause of death for these little penguins.

A penguin graveyard in Antarctica

It’s not uncommon to find the remains of Adélie penguins in Antarctica, with bones and feathers intact. After all, it’s their main habitat. What’s unusual is to find so many in one place at the same time. That can only mean there was a major event that led to the near-simultaneous death of these flightless birds.

Radiocarbon dating showed that the penguins died in two separate eras. The first was about 750 years ago. After studying the ground around the area, the researchers found that the surviving penguins had moved their colonies far from the graveyard.

Understanding the behavior of these penguins from the past could help scientist predict how they’ll act in future moments of crisis. The researchers can use their knowledge to develop prevention and protection strategies for the region’s wildlife. Right now, the main research being done on Adélie penguins is in China and Australia.

Little penguin walking on the snow

A planet that’s heating up

Obviously, everyone knows that penguins need cold, dry climates to survive. However, due to the reality of global warming, the future of Adélie penguins doesn’t look so bright, and the penguin graveyard in Antarctica could end up growing…

“In general, it’s believed that the current global warming trend will continue or even get worse, ” Sun said. He went on to say that the more human-made climate change heats up our planet, the more amount of snow and rain will fall on Antarctica. That will probably “increase the chance of such massive deaths,” he concluded.

Adélie penguins are natives to Antarctica, their sole habitat. According to the researchers, currently, there are about 250 breeding colonies. So, for now, they’re not in imminent danger of extinction.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says that Adélie penguins are actually at relatively low risk. They may not be in imminent danger of extinction, but climate change is still a real threat to their long-term survival.

Between the 2013 and 2014 mating periods, every single baby died. The deaths were caused by constant rain and snowfall. Their offspring can’t survive hypothermia. If the rains continue to fall in the upcoming years, their numbers will only continue dropping. In the end, the penguin graveyard in Antarctica will only grow.

Dr. Sun has made a plea to all of humanity to work together to stop global warming because the lives of these penguins depend on it.