It was just like Pompeii, except with penguins. Just as the inhabitants of that ancient Roman city were preserved under layers of ash and pumice after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, so too were the remains of the winged locals of a tiny Antarctic island preserved through years of ashy eruptions.
But unlike Pompeii’s pristine, statue-like human imprints, the remains on this island mostly comprised penguin poo.
And it just so happens that penguin poo can tell a heck of a story, according to a special report by BBC.
Welcome to Ardley Island, a tiny island that is no longer than 1.9 kilometers and belongs in the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica.
Ardley Island is home to several special seabird colonies, including a breeding colony of gentoo penguins, many other penguins and your average Antarctic terns, skuas and petrels.
Scientists were digging into the sediments of a lake on Ardley to test the penguin poo that has collected over thousands of years — your average Tuesday as an Antarctic ornithologist — when they discovered something pretty unusual. Over the past 7,000 years, the sediment held alternating layers of concentrated penguin poo interspersed with thick layers of volcanic ash.
First impression? It stunk.
"When we brought the cores back to the lab, they were really quite smelly. We deal with rotten organic matter within cores quite a lot but this was particularly smelly," one of the scientists told BBC.
But besides stink, the layers of ash contained a different kind of treasure: tiny bits of prehistoric penguins, preserved as they waddled around during each volcanic eruption.
These penguin pieces mostly comprised talons and vertebrae from penguin chicks that couldn’t escape the ash fall and died under layers of dust.
Bony fragments recovered from Ardley.
It’s certainly a tragedy on the penguin-scale, but it’s also a story of remarkable survival. The penguin poo records show just how the penguins were able to build up their populations after each eruption and flop around on Ardley Island to this day.