URI Researcher studies climate change by looking at the diets of penguins

South County

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (WPRI) — Dr. Kelton McMahon, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island (URI), is working on a new technique to study climate change on Narragansett Bay.

Over the past couple of years, McMahon and his team have collected feathers and remains of past penguins in Antarctica.

“They have a number of tissues that are really well preserved back through time, so things like egg shells and feathers, they are deposited, they lay on the ground and they eventually get buried through time,” McMahon said.

Like paleontologists, McMahon’s team excavates and gathers evidence of past meals in the birds, which reveal signs of how their climate and environment has changed over time.

Some of the shells and feathers date back tens of thousands of years, and McMahon said they are using a technique that analyzes the penguins’ chemical signature.

“We’re actually digging in to look at individual compounds, so individual amino acids,” McMahon said.

McMahon is now using the same technique to analyze animals like fish in Narragansett Bay, which he hopes will reveal signs about how their diet has changed along with the climate, just like it does with penguins.

According to McMahon, the research could help with important decisions in the future.

“What types of fish should be pulled out of the ocean, and how many and where should we be fishing” McMahon said. “It’s all dictated by the role these organisms play in the food web.”‘

The journey down to the Antarctic wasn’t easy. McMahon said it involved flying down to Argentina and a boat ride of several days.

McMahon admitted to having a little queasiness on the ship.

“You have to push through for the love of science and the value that it provides so thank goodness for Dramamine,” McMahon said.

McMahon along with a couple of graduate students will start to look at the data in August.

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