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Studying the climate resiliency of penguins in Antarctica could explain changes to Long Island's shorebirds

Gentoo penguins explode out of the ocean in Antarctica.
Stony Brook University
Moment RF
Gentoo penguins in Antarctica.

Scientists from Stony Brook University have returned from an Antarctic expedition to study the impact of climate change on penguin colonies. They said the findings signal a call to action to protect the health of the arctic and beyond.

For a frozen tundra, the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming regions of Earth, forcing some penguin species to find new nesting areas.

The team found that Adélie penguin colonies had taken refuge in the Weddell Sea — an area that’s remained pretty stable over the last decade, compared to the rapidly warming western side of the peninsula.

“Some of the really big colonies we have to survey by drone, and then the smaller ones we have to count one-by-one,” said Heather Lynch, associate professor who runs the quantitative ecology lab at Stony Brook University. She was tasked with counting the birds, which get up into the thousands.

Lynch said the Weddell Sea has been an important refuge for wildlife, but it’s not immune to climate change and other threats. Designating it a global marine protected area would be a big help.

“It protects the species that live there from additional human threats on top of climate change, so the sea itself doesn’t do anything about the impact of climate change, but it protects them from things like fishing or other human activities that might be disruptive,” she said.

The researchers also discovered a new colony of Gentoo penguins on the eastern side of the peninsula, and the first ever colony on the northern tip. This is the furthest south the species has ever been found. It’s historically been too icy for them.

This ability to relocate makes birds good indicators for the health of the environment. So while Antarctica is a pretty good distance away from her lab, Lynch said the actions of penguin are a red flag to signal a change in the health of the ocean.

“That ocean is the same as our ocean," Lynch said. "So, it’s really giving us a picture about the health of our oceans globally."

"And I think that’s why being as coastal as we are up here in the Long Island Sound area, that’s the same ocean we swim in in the summer, and so we should really care if it’s not functioning the way that it has historically.”

Researchers from Stony Brook are using the same technique used in the Antarctic to monitor shorebirds here at home on Long Island’s coastline.

Sabrina is host and producer of WSHU’s daily podcast After All Things. She also produces the climate podcast Higher Ground and other long-form news and music programs at the station. Sabrina spent two years as a WSHU fellow, working as a reporter and assisting with production of The Full Story.