College of Arts & Sciences

UNCW Interdepartmental Research Team Awarded NSF Grant to Study Adélie Penguins in Antarctica

OCTOBER 28, 2022

Dr. Steve Emslie, professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology, and Dr. Chad Lane, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, have received a four-year National Science Foundation award with colleague Mike Polito, a former UNCW doctoral student of Dr. Emslie. The team will study foraging grounds of Adélie penguins in the Ross Sea area, East Antarctica, to better understand the impacts of climate change and to help protect their projected future foraging sites.

The award entitled, “Collaborative Research: Using Multiple Stable Isotopes to Investigate Middle to Late Holocene Ecological Responses by Adélie Penguins in the Ross Sea,” yields $517,190 to UNCW and includes significant support for student researchers and broader impacts. The objective of the project is to trace the foraging grounds of Adélie penguins through space and time using stable isotopes and to protect the projected sites over at least the next 50 years.

Emslie first visited Antarctica in 1991 and fell in love with the continent, especially the east side near the Ross Sea. The Ross Sea is often referred to as the "Last Ocean" because it is largely untouched by humans. The pristine waters are nutrient-rich and provide protection with foraging grounds for the Adélie penguins and other marine life. Although East Antarctica is showing clear signs of warming, Emslie says, “The climate is colder and drier than in West Antarctica and preservation of the Adélie penguin remains is excellent.” Due to this preservation, the team can study mummified remains within both active and abandoned colonies dating back to the last ice age (>13,000 years ago). This will allow them to understand how the sea birds’ diet has changed through time with climate that also affects their foraging grounds.

Analyzing stable isotopes (carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur) provides the data to assess how the aquatic birds have shifted ecologically through time. “In the case of this study, the three different isotopes each reflect a slightly different line of evidence that reflect something unique to the environments utilized by the penguins through time,” shares Dr. Chad Lane. UNCW’s Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry Core Facility houses cutting-edge instrumentation to analyze samples and provide the isotopic data. Lane serves as the director of the facility. Analyzing bones and feathers from these colonies will provide a forensic paleoecology, the study of past ecosystems and organisms in those ecosystems, of the penguins.

The isotopes provide indirect evidence of their foraging behaviors. Lane says, “The carbon tells us about the carbon source for organisms they are eating, the nitrogen tells us where on the trophic scale they are eating, and the sulfur tells us about the source of sulfur consumed by the organisms. In combination, you then have multiple lines of evidence of what and where the organism is eating. If you only had nitrogen alone, for example, you’d only know where on the trophic scale they are feeding, not geographically where they are feeding. The addition of sulfur gives us the ability to discern both type of foods consumed and where they are being sourced.”

The additive effect of the isotopic signatures is like finding another piece of evidence at a crime scene. A footprint is great, but a footprint, a strand of hair, and a fingerprint is much more useful for crime scene reconstruction. Investigating and reconstructing animal migration in marine species that can travel great distances are important to protect these species. In the case of Adélie penguins, they nest in open ocean polynyas of the Ross Sea.

Emslie and his team plan to travel to McMurdo Station, the logistical hub of Antarctica, in December or January 2023/2024 to collect samples, both ancient and modern of Adélie penguin remains. Currently, he will be deploying to the Ross Sea in January 2023 in partnership with a tour ship company, Heritage Expeditions, based out of New Zealand. He and his current graduate student, Kate Sutherland, will spend 30 days on this ship from which they can collect samples ahead of the NSF-funded work, provide lectures to passengers, and engage passengers in citizen science by having them help collect samples in the field. Sutherland will continue with the tour ship for one more 30-day trip before returning to Wilmington. Emslie anticipates having the first samples for this project in his lab by spring 2023 to begin the analyses.

Emslie has also designed and teaches a unique undergraduate course at UNCW every fall: BIO 367 Antarctic Ecology, Geology, History, and Policy.

 - ME Frizzell