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Gentoo adult penguins with chicks.
Photo Credit: Michael Polito
Gentoo adult penguins with chicks along the Antarctic Peninsula. Emslie's team is now looking at the diet of gentoo penguins to see if it shifted with the abundance of krill, though the subantarctic critters generally eat more fish than the smaller Adélies. 

Research suggests modern Adélie diet not as krill-centric as scientists once thought

Michael Polito External Non-U.S. government site, a graduate student in Emslie’s lab External Non-U.S. government site and co-principal investigator on the project, has been working around the Antarctic Peninsula collecting penguin tissue samples from extant, or existing, colonies. By comparing the data from the stable isotope analysis to what other penguin researchers have found by physically looking at the stomach contents of the penguins, Polito hopes to refine the isotope methodology.

“They’re both useful, especially when you can use them together you can get more information than you could get just by one method alone,” he said.

For instance, it’s possible to determine the exact species of fish from stomach contents, but underestimate the mass of fish consumed, as fish digest rapidly in a penguin’s stomach, Polito said. In contrast, the stable isotope method can’t readily determine what fish species the penguins are eating, but it can provide a good estimate on how much fish the penguins consume versus krill and other prey in the ocean.

In addition, stomach content data are limited to when the penguins are on land rearing their chicks. The isotope method can also provide information about penguin diets outside of the breeding season.

And based on early results, it appears the Adélies aren’t always as reliant on krill as one might suppose from looking at what’s in their bellies during the austral summer.

“We’re definitely finding that the isotopes in general do predict a higher composition of fish in the diet than the stomach content do. It still looks like during the chick-rearing period krill are still dominant,” Polito said. “Based on the isotope data, fish appear to be relatively more important to penguins during the pre-breeding period than the breeding period.”

That finding is important but puzzling. Researchers working along the Antarctic Peninsula have reported that Adélie colonies are disappearing, their fate apparently linked to the diminishing sea ice in the region from warming temperatures. Krill also use sea ice as a key habitat. Hence, the Adélies face a double climate whammy — loss of their sea ice habitat and loss of a primary prey.

But if fish still remain a staple, why are Adélie numbers declining so dramatically? Scientists don’t really have an answer at this point. Emslie noted that part of the problem is that fish have become highly depleted as well from fisheries. “That means they have no other choices left,” he said of the Adélies.

Polito’s work to improve the isotope methodology also involves determining what other variables may be at work influencing the carbon and nitrogen ratios. For example, it turns out the size of the krill — from the juvenile stage to the adulthood — might affect their stable isotope ratio.  

“Once we know how variable krill is and why it’s variable, that’s going to allow us to predict with greater accuracy the penguin diet itself.

“The modern work that we do is really designed to gain more insight about the past as well as the future,” Polito added. “We want to know how penguins respond to changes in their environment, be it climate or food availability.”

NSF-funded research in this story: Steven Emslie, Michael Polito and William Patterson, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Award No. 0739575 External U.S. government site.Back   1 2