Covered in ash: Chinstrap penguins threatened by volcanic eruption

The hatcheries of migratory penguins can be magical places, full of fluffy chicks and doting parents. But things are less picturesque when you add volcanic ash to the mix. A volcano on the northernmost island of an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean has been spewing ash and smoke since March, threatening one of the largest colonies of penguins in the world, according to a new study.

Zavodovski Island, one of the South Sandwich Islands, is uninhabited by humans, but it is home to more than 1 million chinstrap penguins, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). BAS researchers found the volcanic eruption via satellite imagery and fishermen from nearby South Georgia were able to photograph ash blowing eastward across the island over penguin-nesting grounds.

“We don’t know what impact the ash will have on the penguins,” Peter Fretwell, a geographer with the BAS, said in a statement. “If it has been heavy and widespread it may have a serious effect on the population.”

The chinstrap penguin(Pygoscelis antarctica) stands about 30 inches (75 centimeters) tall and eats mostly krill (tiny crustaceans). These penguins are abundant throughout the sub-Antarctic region, and there are at least 8 million in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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