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A study on climate change & declining penguin populations

5 min read

At Quark Expeditions, we are proud to partner with scientists who are leading their fields in boots-on-the-ground research. In addition to some of the more famous explorers we've welcomed aboard as Resident Experts, year after year we have the pleasure of welcoming Oxford Biology Department researchers and penguinologists, Dr. Tom Hart and Gemma Clucas.

Throughout their roughly 15 Antarctic expeditions with us, Hart and Clucas have gathered genetic samples, data and local knowledge as part of a collaborative study. This month, the new study co-authored by these expert penguinologists has been published in Scientific Reports and covered by National Geographic.

Meet Dr. Tom Hart and Gemma Clucas, Quark Penguinologists

The new study, titled “A reversal of fortunes: climate change ‘winners' and ‘losers' in Antarctic Peninsula penguins,” compares historic penguin population fluctuations to today's more rapid, climate change-induced trends.

According to Dr. Hart, “Historically, warming has caused all penguin populations to rise, but now numbers of Adélie and chinstrap penguins are falling.” The study surmises that climate change is causing warming to happen too quickly, which is changing biodiversity in ways that cause these populations to shrink. Of the three species the team studied, only one – gentoo penguins – had growing populations. Krill, which shrink in numbers along with the ice, is a main food source for Adélie and chinstrap penguins, but gentoo penguins rely on other sources of nourishment.

When asked about the future of penguin population trends in Antarctica, Dr. Hart commented, “The truth is the future looks pretty bad; they are likely to decline more, particularly unless we can address climate change and fisheries. It's important not to talk about extinction, because in some areas penguins are doing fine, but in the peninsular region, where the effects of climate change are worse, they're doing pretty badly.”

Research aboard Quark's Antarctic Expeditions

Tom Hart

Dr. Tom Hart sets up his equipment on a Quark Expeditions' voyage to Antarctica.

“I've kind of lost count of how many times I've traveled with Quark,” Dr. Hart said. “We began traveling with Quark in 2010, collecting genetic samples and monitoring populations with time lapse cameras. We have observers stationed in some places year-round, and sometimes we're able to connect with them. We've also been collaborating with the British Antarctic, and a few other organizations, but all the samples we collected from the peninsula for this study were done on Quark Expeditions' voyages.”

Gemma Clucas, an Oxford Zoology Department research assistant, described how they collected samples on excursions. “We were mainly collecting feathers as genetic samples,” Ms. Clucas said, adding, “either picking them off the ground, or following them during their molt. Sometimes we would take clept feather samples, and we would need to restrain the birds. We would also sometimes try to sex them, which you can do by measuring the bills, if you can restrain them long enough to do it. It was always fun work, you know, but the work tended to stick with you. Even in the lab, everything always smelled like penguins!”

“They're all amazing birds,” Ms. Clucas said, “but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the Adélie. They're the cutest.”

Quark: where scientific research & tourism meet

South Georgia

Voyaging with tourism expedition companies has been a growing trend with scientists. Dr. Hart explains the benefit: “As a scientist, it's very hard to get to Antarctica. If you can reduce what you need to do to a three-hour window, then you can jump aboard these voyages and collect a lot of samples.”

But the benefit of conducting research with organizations like Quark doesn't end at collecting samples. “The knowledge of the expedition team as scientific and local experts who were on the voyages was really a tremendous asset. On my first trip, I found it slightly embarrassing how much the naturalists knew about penguins that I didn't. They were a great source for collaboration. They would trigger ideas, and inform our research.

"The local knowledge of naturalists was really key. They would know things like, which colonies breed before others, and how they're affected by the sea ice. This kind of knowledge was something scientists were not collecting data on, so it presented wonderful opportunities.”

Tourists, Dr. Hart and Ms. Clucas observed, were always very interested in their work aboard voyages. Joining tourists on excursions to collect samples provided context for the onboard education programs they taught.

“A lot of people are surprised to hear that penguins are declining and Antarctica is changing,” Dr. Hart said. “There's a lot of concern and support, once they learn what's happening in the region, and can see it with their own eyes.”

Want to learn more about the penguins you may encounter on one of our Antarctic expeditions? See our recent post about five particularly fascinating penguins including kings and rockhoppers.

Tom Hart


Dr. Tom Hart, Penguinologist

Tom runs the Penguin Lifelines project at Oxford University and the Zoological Society of London, through which he monitors Antarctic wildlife using camera trapping, volunteer photos and population genetics.

Tom's PhD at Imperial College and the British Antarctic Survey investigated penguin foraging behavior around South Georgia. He loves the world's cold places and is passionate about protecting them. Tom loves all penguins, but particularly macaroni penguins, as they have the most attitude.

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