Citadel professor travels to Antarctica to study penguins

Penguins in Antarctica (Courtesy: Paul Nolan)

By Sonya

CHARLESTON, S.C. ( WCIV) -- Climate change can be a controversial topic. But one Citadel professor recently made quite a trek to find out if it's impacting penguins.

Dr. Paul Nolan isn't spending much time in the classroom these days; instead he is working on research. He recently spent three weeks in Antarctica studying penguins.

"I wanted to take photographs of as many birds as possible hopefully of their feet although that can be harder to come by but especially their beak and get a feel for how much variation there is out there," said Nolan.

He took each picture with a color chart which helps measure the health of each animal.

"This card would have been duct taped on to a stick," said Nolan. "Most of the penguins were fine with that, look at it curiously more than anything, but one of them got a good bite on it and pulled out part of the card."

But that was as close as he got to the penguins.

"I can pick up those feathers without ever bothering the birds, bring them back here to my lab at The Citadel and measure the stress hormone levels and compare them between this colony that is unvisited between this colony that is heavily visited, his colony that has a lot of fish nearby or a lot of krill nearby," said Nolan.

The question is what is causing changes in these animals. Nolan says it could be a number of things.

"Is it because the climate is changing?" asked Nolan. "We know the peninsula has increased by several degrees Celsius, 4 or 5 degrees Fahrenheit, more than almost anywhere on the planet. Is that causing it. We don't know."

Nolan also says that human tourism may cause problems with these colonies, but they won't know the answer until they really starting looking at all the pictures and running samples on the feathers.

"Once we have the data, then we can sort of look at correlates to say what explains any changes that we are seeing or any differences that we are seeing so hopefully this is the beginning of a multi-year project. I would love to go back," said Nolan.

Nolan has started his research but says it's too early to reach any real conclusions.

The results will be included in a long-range penguin research program directed by the Oxford penguin expert, Dr. Tom Hart.

Dr. Nolan has studied penguins for more than a decade.