Five Thousand Year Old Penguins Emerge From the Melting Antarctica Ice

Credit: Steven Emslie

Penguins: Climate change is revealing more and more ancient corpses as the Earth becomes warmer and warmer melting the polar ice.

Dr. Steven Emslie, an ornithologist with University of North Carolina, Wilmington spent some time at Zucchelli Station in Antarctica in 2016 studying penguin colonies. He had heard talk of penguins gathering at Cape Irizar but had never heard of birds nesting in that area.

Credit: Steven Emslie

He hired a helicopter and visited the area finding remains of penguins that looked like they had died recently. After closer examination, he found the corpses were not recent but from eight hundred to over five thousand years old.

According to, When Dr. Emslie reached the site, he found pebbles, bones and feathers everywhere and even a piece of eggshell.

There was a large amount of dried penguin guano and birds whose flesh was still intact after hundreds of years of being buried in the ice. Dr. Emslie believes there have been several different colonies with the first one from about two to five thousand years ago.

He believes the second was from about one to two thousand years ago and the third from about eight hundred to one thousand years ago.

‘The remains were all Adélie penguins and I have been studying their past remains, abandoned breeding sites, and how they respond to climate change,’ Emslie said. Credit: Steven Emslie

It’s possible that during the “little ice age” from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth century in which there was an increase in temperature and precipitation across much of the Earth, glaciers pushed forward into Switzerland, France and neighboring countries triggering cold winters and wet cool summers causing crops to fail.

Emslie recently published a paper in Geology highlighting his work. ‘The radiocarbon dates showed at least three occupations in the past, beginning over 5,000 years ago, with the last one ending about 800 years ago at the start of the Little Ice Age.’

The ice may have blocked the penguins’ access to the ocean leading the birds to abandon the site. David Ainley, a penguin ecologist at ecological consulting firm, H.T. Harvey & Associates remarked, “We always thought Adélie penguins carried a strong impulse to return to the nesting sites where they were born year after year but as several catastrophic ice collapses have shown us recently, they are actually pretty adaptable.

Credit: Steven Emslie

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We’ve seen that Adélies will roam the coast in small flocks and if they find a promising-looking site like this one, they will make it their home.” according to

Because of climate change and the melting glaciers causing ocean levels to rise, penguins are starting to move their colonies and Dr. Emslie believes that Cape Irizar would be an ideal place as it already covered in pebbles which the birds need for their nests and now has complete access to the ocean.

Adélie Penguins are classified as a near threatened species but according to, the colonies are starting to increase.

The average life span is from eleven to twenty years and they are about twenty eight inches tall weighing about eight to twelve pounds.

Pictured is an active Adélie colony in the Ross Sea. Credit: Steven Emslie

They live on the continent of Antarctic and usually spend most of their time living near pack ice. Their preferred food is krill, fish and squid and can dive as far as five hundred and seventy five feet deep but usually hunt in more shallow waters.

They will also roam as far as sixty miles looking for food. As they live in the southern hemisphere, October is spring for them and they begin building nests in colonies of thousands of other penguins. They line their nests with pebbles and some have been observed stealing pebbles from neighboring nests.

When the ice sheets break up the birds are known to walk about thirty miles to reach the sea from the colony.

There are usually two chicks unless there isn’t enough food and one dies. Both parents raise the chicks for about three weeks after they hatch when they can be left alone so the parents can hunt while the juveniles group together for safety.

When Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton led three expeditions into the Antarctic for the British from 1901 to 1919, he recorded every penguin colony he saw but there was no record for Cape Irizar.

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According to, when Dr. Emslie found the site one of his first thoughts was, “wow, a penguin colony that even Shackleton didn’t know about.” In Shackleton’s defense, the colony was completely hidden from view in the early 1900s.

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