A volcano on Antarctica's Deception Island nearly wiped out one of the continent's largest and oldest penguin populations ... not once but three times throughout history. Ash from an 8,500-year-old a sediment core shows that the volcano erupted about 5,300; 4,300; and 3,000 years ago. By measuring guano (bird poop) samples in the core, scientists found that these eruptions nearly decimated the penguin colony.
However, the colony was resilient. It bounced back every time, although it took between 400 and 800 years to do so. [Read the full story on the penguins affected by the volcano]
These maps show where the researchers conducted their fieldwork.
Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) collect pebbles for their nests. Today, there are about 5,000 breeding pairs of gentoo penguins on Ardley Island in Antarctica.
Gentoo penguins nest on the ice-free rocks of Ardley Island. By looking at core samples, the researchers determined that gentoo penguins have lived on Ardley Island for almost 7,000 years, which is 1,000 years longer than previously thought.
A gentoo penguin climbs the slope leading to its nesting colony on Ardley Island. When the volcano on Deception Island had three big eruptions in the past, the toxic and abrasive ash released would have been deadly for penguin chicks. They would have been too young to escape into the surrounding frigid waters.
A gentoo penguin nesting on Ardley Island. Nowadays, the volcano on Deception Island doesn't erupt with as much force as it used to, meaning that penguin researchers can instead spend time worrying about other issues affecting the water birds, such as climate change.
Notice the volcanic ash layers in the lake sediment cores taken from Kiteschee Lake on Fildes Peninsula. The small ash layers correspond with small eruptions from the volcano on Deception Island in the last 2,000 to 3,000 years.
The largest eruptions in the core sample from Fildes Peninsula and Ardley Island happened about 7,000 years ago and about 5,500 to 4,500 years ago. By studying these core samples, the researchers determined that these eruptions spewed more than 3 feet (1 meter) of ash into the air.
[Read the full story on the penguins affected by the volcano]
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.