Antarctica’s Ross Sea has been a safe haven for Emperor Penguins for thousands of years, notwithstanding the fact that the temperatures were too harsh for their liking. This was revealed in a study which was published on Monday.
Scientists are looking closely at how the climatic changes could have affected the highly cold adapted penguin, the Emperor Penguin which happens to be the tallest and the heaviest of all penguin species. The studies suggest that over the last 30,000 years only three populations survived the last ice age.
The conditions were so frigid and severe that the number of Emperor Penguins on the frozen expanse was seven times less than they are today. They were also confined to a few pockets of existence according to joint lead researcher Jane Younger.
“We hadn’t really thought about the fact that it would be too cold for them in the past,” Younger, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania, told AFP.
“They live through life in minus 30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) now so they are pretty cold adapted.”
Scientists affiliated to the universities of Tasmania, Southampton and Oxford in Britain, along with the Australian Antarctic Division were able to estimate the population of penguins over time by examining the genetic diversity of modern and ancient penguin populations.
The scientists found that the numbers began increasing over the last 12,000 years when the temperatures rose by an average of 15 degrees centigrade leading to a reduction in the sea ice around Antarctica.
Rising temperatures gave the penguin chicks better access to the ocean and therefore better food. This made the chances of penguin chicks of surviving the winter when temperatures would have dropped to minus 45 degrees Celsius, much higher.
Jane Younger said, “We were actually really surprised by this. What we had thought was that the ice age, because there was so much more sea ice which they need (to breed) and because they are so cold-adapted, that this would probably be a good thing for them.”
Younger said, “The Ross Sea is probably really important, of the area on the Pacific Ocean side of Antarctica which is considered the world’s most intact marine ecosystem. They have survived there for at least the last 30,000 years and even when the environment has been really unsuitable in a lot of other places the Ross Sea has been kind of a safe haven for them. The Ross Sea seems to come up time and time again as a really important part of the Antarctic ecosystem.”
The researchers felt that a population survived in the Ross Sea region because this particular area was kept free of sea ice by the winds and currents according to the study which was published in Global Change Biology.