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Look to penguins to track Antarctic changes

Shifts in food webs and climate are written in penguin feathers and eggshells

By
5:16pm, February 14, 2018
Gentoo penguin

FOOD TRACKER A new tool could help scientists distinguish between dietary changes in Gentoo penguins and changes that originate lower in the food web.

PORTLAND, Ore. Penguins preserve records of Antarctic environmental change. The birds’ feathers and eggshells contain the chemical fingerprints of variations in diet, food web structure and even climate, researchers reported February 12 at the American Geophysical Union’s 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting.

The Antarctic environment has changed dramatically in recent decades. Overfishing has led to a decline in krill, small swimming crustaceans that are a key food source for birds, whales, fish and penguins in the Southern Ocean. Climate change is altering wind directions, creating open water regions in the sea ice that become hot spots for life.

These changes have cascading effects on food webs and on the cycling of nutrients. “Penguins are excellent bioarchives of this change,” says Kelton McMahon, an oceanic ecogeochemist at the

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