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How Emperor Penguins Survived the Last Ice Age

Mar 02, 2015 12:18 PM EST
emperor penguins

(Photo : Dr. Tom Hart)

Emperor penguins managed to survive the last Ice Age, a new genetic study says, and now scientists are taking a closer look as to how these animals prevailed during a period of extreme climate change.

In order to learn more about their adaptability, a team led by the University of Southampton studied the genetic diversity of modern and ancient emperor penguin populations in Antarctica over the last 30,000 years.

This iconic species is known for thriving in an isolated, icy world. For example, they can breed on sea ice during bitter Antarctic winters when temperatures are regularly below -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit). However, it turns out that even emperor penguins have their limits.

According to the study, during the last Ice Age conditions were too harsh for these birds, so much so that only three populations may have survived.

"Due to there being about twice as much sea ice during the last ice age, the penguins were unable to breed in more than a few locations around Antarctica. The distances from the open ocean, where the penguins feed, to the stable sea ice, where they breed, was probably too far. The three populations that did manage to survive may have done so by breeding near to polynyas," Gemma Clucas, one of the study's lead authors, said in a statement.

Polynyas are areas lacking sea ice due to wind and currents, and one such polynya is the Ross Sea, which probably protected the peguins during the last Ice Age. At least, researchers found that emperor penguins that breed in the Ross Sea are genetically distinct from other emperor penguins around Antarctica.

"Our research suggests that the populations became isolated during the last ice age, pointing to the fact that the Ross Sea could have been an important refuge for emperor penguins and possibly other species too," added researcher Jane Younger.

While it's helpful to know that penguins can withstand the coldest conditions of the Antarctic, today temperatures are warming up, and conservationists are concerned that emperor penguins are marching towards extinction. These birds show that they are able to toughen out the cold, but it still remains to be seen if they can survive when the thermometers are tipped the other way.

The findings were published in the journal Global Change Biology.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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