15-Ice: Birds foretelling climate change
Anant Pande is an Indian polar researcher who studies snow petrels – shy pelagic (sea-faring) birds who nest on rock crevices in Antarctica. These endemic birds prefer to nest near less icy waters. Climate change has melted polar oceans and perhaps made it less energy intensive — as they have to fly shorter distances to find non-frozen oceans.
But it has also increased extreme weather events that tend to flood homes of less experienced nesters who are unaware of safer, wind-free directions to house a nest. The story will uncover facts about snow petrels and the research process details of Indian scientist Anant Pande who goes on expeditions to Antarctica to study these birds.
This episode was produced by Anupama Chandrasekaran and mixed by Collin Warren. Editing and production assistance by Jace Steiner.
Shane: 00:00 Hi Vicky.
Vicky: 00:01 Hi Shane.
Shane: 00:02 So I know a lot of our cold opens this series have been about, well, the cold.
Vicky: 00:10 Oh. Ba-da-bump. Dad joke.
Shane: 00:10 I’m so happy with myself right now.
Vicky: 00:16 Okay. Okay. But the cold makes sense considering this mini series is literally all about ice, right?
Shane: 00:22 Yeah.
Vicky: 00:22 So when I think about ice, I think about drinks.
Shane: 00:27 Ooh. Yeah.
Vicky: 00:28 But I know a lot of people think about snow. So Shane, I don’t have any necessarily, but do you have any special memories involving snow?
Shane: 00:41 I mean, it’s probably so many. I actually love the snow. I’m one of those weird people that really enjoys the cold more than the warm.
Vicky: 00:46 Ugh. No.
Shane: 00:47 But one that specifically came to mind, I have no idea why I thought about this, but when I was young, I was probably seven or eight, and one of my older brothers who was nine years older than me, he and I were playing in the snow bank in our home in rural Pennsylvania. And we were digging a tunnel, I don’t know. To call it an igloo is being way too generous. We’re just digging a tunnel through it. And we’re trying to make a U in the snow bank to go in and out, right?
Vicky: 01:13 Right.
Shane: 01:14 And we’re both digging. This is one of the few days where we’re actually liking each other, especially at that point of our lives, we’re very close now. But I was literally in the farthest point back in the U and the tunnel collapses.
Vicky: 01:28 Oh, no.
Shane: 01:28 And there was this moment of, “Oh no.” Even in my, I don’t know, seven or eight year old brain. And fortunately, it wasn’t super wet snow or anything. And I literally just popped out. I stood up and I popped out and I look, and this is a pretty big thing we made. My brother is 10 feet away digging frantically. And two thoughts in this moment. I was like, “Thing one, this is really sweet how concerned he is for me. I really appreciate that from the familial perspective of it. But thing two, what is going on with your spatial perspective? How do you not know where I was?”
Vicky: 02:14 Oh, I love this visual. Oh my gosh. Wow. It all could have ended in that snow tunnel.
Shane: 02:21 Yeah. But it didn’t.
Vicky: 02:21 Your brother wouldn’t have let it.
Shane: 02:22 Everything turned out well, and we are here to podcast another day.
Vicky: 02:27 Great. I’m excited about it.
Shane: 02:33 Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.
Vicky: 02:43 And I’m Vicky Thompson.
Shane: 02:44 And this is Third Pod From The Sun.
So I’m going to bring us back, because I took us away. But we’re not necessarily talking about snow. We are talking about cold and ice. And the subject, actual subject, not me, the subject of our story not only lives in coldish environment, but has a pretty interesting connection to said environments. To hear more, I’m going to bring in producer Anupama Chandrasekaran. Hi Anupama.
Anupama: 03:15 Hi Shane.
Vicky: 03:16 So Anupama. What are we going to talk about today?
Anupama: 03:20 Well, I’m going to tell you about a bird that times it’s breeding to the melting of ice around frigid seas in Antarctica. Oh, and yes, I’m also going to tell you about their vomit.
Shane: 03:29 Ooh. Vomit. Oh, so I really love learning about the science that our members at AGU do, but I really, I feel like we’re really missing that critical mass when talking about vomit.
Vicky: 03:42 This sounds like a dream come true for you, Shane.
Shane: 03:46 Okay, I mean, I take joy in the little things in life, but in all fairness, I’m sure we’re not just talking about vomit. Anupama, tell us more about snow petrels.
Anupama: 03:57 Truly, they are one of the hardiest birds. Imagine living around Antarctic waters, surrounded by ice. Definitely not my dream home, but these guys can’t get enough of the frozen stuff. Snow petrel flocks often settle on icebergs in the sea and monogamous pairs. Yes, they stick with the same mate throughout their life. Also synchronized breeding and nesting with the melting of ice.
Vicky: 04:24 So they’re monogamous, which is not common in the birding world? And they have a particular affinity with the climate?
Shane: 04:31 Yeah. So I guess we could call them climate scientists in a sense. And I think, I understand this also, are they singers?
Anupama: 04:41 Well, they’re not necessarily chirpy. They’re actually extremely quiet, but Indian scientist Anant Pande definitely isn’t a quiet one. And he’s eked out a lot of information from observation of these reticent dove-like creatures that could tell us a lot about climate change.
Vicky: 04:59 Great. Let’s get into it.
Anant Pand: 05:04 I’m Anant Pande. And I’m a polar scientist. I’m a polar biologist, if you want to specify it. And I work mostly on seabirds, but I’ve also worked on Antarctic marine mammals. But my focus for the last eight to 10 years was seabirds. And I was working particularly on a species which breeds exclusively in Antarctica. And the name of the species is snow petrels.
Anupama: 05:27 Could you tell me a little bit about when was it that you came across this bird and what was it that interested you about it?
Anant Pand: 05:37 So I remember that it was in December of 2013 and I was on an expedition. It was the 33rd Indian scientific expedition to Antarctica. I was walking around the periphery of the island to locate seals. And while doing that I came across this bird which was nesting in a rock cavity. It was absolutely silent. It was incubating there. Only the beak and the legs are black, whereas they’re completely white and they’re very small in size, they’re size of a dove. So during the breeding time, it was just sitting there in the cavity, not making any noise. And that’s how I got interested, like, okay, there is something that we don’t know about in this area. We don’t know how many snow petrels are there. Where do they breed? Are they very common or are they rare?
Anupama: 06:21 So tell us a little bit about this bird and all its features and all the wonderful interesting facts about this bird.
Anant Pand: 06:28 They’re very small. They’re very dainty birds. So you would basically see them as maybe if you see them in the Antarctic, they’re going to Antarctica and you see them. You would think that, okay, that is a white dove which is just flying across you and they’re exclusively endemic to Antarctica. That means they stay in Antarctica all the time. Even during winters, when the winters approach and the sea starts freezing in, the sea around Antarctica starts freezing. And because snow petrels are seabirds, they need to forage, they need open water to feed. They rest on sea ice, and they do, they spend the entire winter there. And once, as soon as the summer approaches, that is in October and November of Antarctica, the birds start coming back and they come back to breed in areas which are free of ice. They can always breed anywhere. They can always make a nest anywhere. But they choose to breed in a cavity because there is another bird, which is a predator of snow petrels which is called a skua. And just to avoid skua, they have to breed in cavities to avoid the predator.
Another interesting thing about their scientific name is Pagodroma nivea. Pagodroma, pagus means ice and droma means they use ice as a runway. So they use to fly. They seem to run on the ice and then fly. So that’s how maybe the first time when they were described, the scientists would describe and named it Pagodroma. And also nivea. Nivea is white. So because they’re completely white. So if you are going to Antarctica and in the backdrop of Antarctic Sea ice, Antarctic mountains, Antarctic icebergs, there is a very high chance that you would miss these birds because they just merge with the background.
So they’re very closely linked to the Antarctic physical as well as the climate condition. So that’s why a lot of scientists who have described snow petrels and who have worked on snow petrels also call them ice dependent or climate dependent. So if the sea ice doesn’t melt when they’re breeding, so they have to fly to long distances. So they have to go to long distance which will increase their energy costs and they’re very closely linked, their populations are very closely linked to how the sea ice fluctuates along Antarctica, around Antarctica. And also the rock out is where they breed. Very interestingly, these rock cavities were formed when the glacier, the glacial ice moved back. So retreated in the last few thousand years. When the glacial ice retreated, the pressure of the glacial ice created those cavities.
Vicky: 09:04 Okay. So the lives of these sea birds is firmly hinged in the ice, in this, I want to say, expanding, contracting, pulsating, continent.
Anupama: 09:17 Yeah. That’s absolutely true. And that word pulsating, it kind of sums up the Antarctic environment with the expansion and contraction of ice around the year through different seasons.
Shane: 09:28 I mentioned, somewhat flippantly, earlier that the birds are climate scientists. But they’re connection to the ice is really important for what we’re learning about climate change, right?
Anupama: 09:39 Right. And Anant is pedaling to find out what’s happening to these ice dependent birds, given the doomsday stories that we are hearing about melting ice caps in the Poles. But I was also curious to know about the challenges these scientists face while working in such extreme environment.
Anant Pand: 09:56 So for me, Antarctica is a place which throws up challenges every time. And what happened in 2013, when I started working on snow petrels, I started looking at these birds. I found out that, okay, I have to basically visit these islands and basically count the birds and count their nests and measure the nests. So what we do is basically in our program, we carry two helicopters. So one of the helicopter which is used is a smaller helicopter to transport scientists to different islands and to get their field work done or their science done. So it is basically a support helicopter for the scientists. And then we have another helicopter, which is a bigger helicopter, which is basically a cargo helicopter, which is there to support the logistics, to supply from the ship to the station and from the station back to the ship. So in some or most of these areas where very inaccessible, it takes time to reach there. So the smaller helicopter is always a preferred helicopter to go there and it can drop you anywhere. But the bigger helicopter cannot go everywhere.
But in what happened in the second expedition, when I went, when I started, actually started working on snow petrels directly, the first helicopter, there was a technical glitch and it stopped working. So we had to rely on the bigger helicopter. So I remember one incident where we were given a time to reach at a particular spot to be picked up by the helicopter. We were working in an island and we were given, we were told by a wireless walkie-talkie, that a helicopter is coming to pick you up, your helicopter, and you have to be on this particular coordinates at this particular time.
So we realized that we are very far from there because the helicopter can’t pick us up. So we started moving towards that particular coordinate, but we were late because we were very far from there. So the helicopter, it started searching for us. And what it did is the helicopter crew, they located us, but they could not come to where we are because it’s a big helicopter, it cannot go everywhere. So they asked us to climb up a slope and come on the top of the cliff. So I remember that there’s a lot of under thrust helicopters. So you imagine that you are climbing up a slope on the top of a small hill. It’s not a very tall hill, it’s a small hill, but we are climbing up and the helicopter is on top hovering and it’s throwing wind at you.
So these kind of challenges always come up.
Anupama: 12:12 Are there any funny or memorable stories from the field that you remember that have stayed with you, that you’ve laughed about with colleagues, with your family, that have been really interesting things that stay with as a picture in your mind?
Anant Pand: 12:28 So there is this bird called a skua. I told you earlier about it. And it’s basically a predator bird of snow petrels. So it’s like it’s a seagull. We were walking very close to the lake and we didn’t realize there is a skua nest over there, and we just walked past them. And I was walking and there was another colleague of mine. We two were walking. And I was basically trying to locate skua’s nest and he was coming with me. So he was very, basically very slow walker. So I’m walking and he’s quite behind me. So it’s very far. But suddenly I see him running towards me. So he’s run straight towards me and goes past me. And there is a skua chasing him. So it was a very funny scene which happened. And these kind of things happen only in Antarctica. If you explain this to somebody here, it’s very difficult to imagine what would’ve happened, but these kind of things, like people are really scared of skuas there.
Anupama: 13:21 It created a very vivid picture in my mind.
Anant Pand: 13:26 Interesting thing about snow petrels is because they stay at the nest cavity during the entire breeding season, during the entire incubating period, and incubation period, and they need energy to sustain themselves. So what they do is basically in their body, whatever food they’re having, out of that, the lipids and the fats, they store as oil. So it’s called as a stomach oil. They use it as an energizer, but they also use it as an defense against the predator, which is skua. So when the skuas approach these nest cavities to sometimes hunt on snow petrels, they spit at them.
They also use it against their own birds. So they, again, other snow petrels. So other snow petrels which are trying to occupy the same nest cavity, they use it against them as well. So it’s not only for predator avoidance, it’s also to not let other birds inside your home, basically. So this is what is very particular about them, but these stomach oil, as soon as it comes into outside of the body of the snow petrel, when they spit it it either it gets deposited on top of the nest cavity or on the bottom of the nest cavity. And over a period of time, this starts gets depositing. As soon as it comes out, it freezes. And then once it freezes, then slowly it gets starts depositing on it. And over a period of time, a layer is formed. And if you look at the cross section of the layer, you can actually tell from when the snow petrel was breeding in there. So you can actually carbon date it and tell, okay, this was the time in the period of them, these birds came and started colonizing these areas.
Shane: 14:56 I can’t stop picturing the scene in Jurassic Park where the Dilophosaurus, the one that spits acid, and spoiler alert, attacks Newman from Seinfeld. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Google it. It’s totally worth it.
Vicky: 15:16 Jurassic Park. I think you’re taking us off track, right?
Shane: 15:19 Sorry.
Vicky: 15:20 So, no, it’s okay. Okay. So back to Anupama.
Anupama: 15:24 So that’s the research many other scientists are doing. The stomach oil deposits are great organic matter that absolutely fail to decompose in Antarctic’s deep freeze. And they actually tell scientists about which rocks snow petrels nested over time. I mean, this information is absolutely vital because it points to spots where ice didn’t exist because snow petrels nest only on rocks.
Vicky: 15:52 Okay. And this is where the climate connection comes in.
Anant Pand: 15:57 So if you monitor snow petrels for a long period of time, we would understand what is happening in their biology and what is happening in their breeding patterns. And we can link it to the weather patterns. So as you have read in the news and all that, Antarctic weather, it has started fluctuating a lot. In the last report, there was a report of there’s a 40 degree variation in Antarctic temperatures, the lowest temperature and the highest temperature. There’s a lot of variation which happened. So what’ll happen basically out of that is it’ll lead to a lot of melting. It’ll lead to a lot of melting of the ice cap, which is on Antarctica. You see ice has melted and they don’t need to travel very far, but it might also have an impact on their breeding patterns. So how they breed in those areas, whether they come on the same dates or they defer their dates.
There have been studies which I’ve seen which have shown that the birds are changing their breeding dates over a period of time. And these are long term studies which are showing that the birds are changing their breeding dates. If the birds keep on changing their breeding dates, it is completely linked to the availability of food or availability of resources for them. So during my doctoral study, I found out that the birds are actively avoiding the direction of the wind. So a lot of wind in Antarctica where I was working, it’s mostly easterly, it’s northeasterly, actually, so it comes mostly from the Northeast. And mostly of the birds nest were located towards the Southwest. So they were completely avoiding, trying to avoid the wind. So unlike other sea birds, they basically breed every alternate year. And as you know, they’re also monogamous. So they only select one partner for life. And they only change the partner when the partner dies or moves away. So there might be a high probability of them staying together and they do not breed every year and they lay only one egg every year, so that is alternate years.
Another thing is that also they start breeding very late in life. So they start breeding only after they turn seven to eight years. So the sexual majority is also very late. So which means that they’re very highly slow breeding animals actually, slow breeding birds. So why this happens? Because in an atmosphere, in a climate, in an environment like Antarctica, it is very difficult to find resources to breed actually. So breeding is a very energetically very costly activity. So to reduce that cost for their own survival, they reduce the number of years they breed, and they also reduce it to only one egg.
So if the one egg does not hatch, they leave the egg, and they abandon and they go away. But if it hatches and there’s a chick which comes out, they try to feed the chick as much as possible in a very short span of time, and they make it independent of themselves, and then they fly away. The parents fly away. So when we are putting these cameras and we are trying to look at their breeding patterns, and as I told you that if there is a snowstorm or there’s a blizzard, the snow accumulates on the nest cavity, inside the nest cavity, and these birds have to abandon the nest. So the frequency of these events over a period of time is changing and it’s getting more frequent.
Shane: 18:58 Imagine having to abandon your home because of snow on a regular basis.
Vicky: 19:05 Oh, so kind of like vacationing to Hawaii or Florida, snowbirds in the winter when it gets too cold, except not as relaxing and definitely way more often. I feel like this is coming for us.
Shane: 19:18 It might be coming for us.
Vicky: 19:19 With climate, yeah.
Shane: 19:20 Yeah. I mean, I, again, the situation’s very different, but if I could go to Hawaii as often as petrels move away from snow, I might be a happy camper.
Anupama: 19:30 And petrels are happy campers too, perhaps, because what the changing climate means for them is that they probably have better chances to breed, but it also comes with some dangers.
Anant Pand: 19:44 So all those things are possible with the changing climate, with the rising temperatures and if the warming increases, and there are more open, accessible areas around, we expect that the bird population should increase, because they’ll have more areas to breed, but we don’t know. So if you see that the snow melts and there is a lot of food around, so you would also see that there are a lot of other species which will start coming into feed on these things and there will be a lot of competition because there’s a lot of food. And a lot of species which live in warmer areas will start moving southwards, forwards, they’ll start coming in. So there are a lot of invasive species which will start coming into Antarctica. So we need to basically monitor them for a really long period of time to understand whether what is happening to these birds and how closely it is linked to climate and what patterns can we discover by using these birds as indicators of the climate.
Vicky: 20:41 Okay. So at this point I’m convinced that there are infinite, so many ways, to learn about climate change.
Shane: 20:46 Yeah. And especially, I mean, I love this, especially from such a cute source.
Vicky: 20:50 Are snow petrels cute?
Shane: 20:52 They are cute. Yeah. Look them up. And I encourage folks at home to look them up as well.
Vicky: 20:56 Oh, they’re cute. They look like furry, cuddly, almost.
Anupama: 21:01 Yeah. They’re like little doves and they are super, super cute when they especially spit stomach bile.
Shane: 21:10 Oh, I almost forgot. We were talking about vomit in the beginning. Cute and cool and climate scientists.
Vicky: 21:18 Okay. Definitely shot up on my list of favorite animals.
Shane: 21:22 Certainly. All right, folks. Well, that’s all from Third Pod From The Sun.
Vicky: 21:26 Thanks so much for Anupama for bringing us this story and to Anant for sharing their work with us.
Shane: 21:31 This episode was produced by Anupama with audio engineering from Colin Warren.
Vicky: 21:36 Okay, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this podcast. Please rate and review us and you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.
Shane: 21:46 Thanks all. And we’ll see you next week.
Cool. All right. How’s the dog doing?
Vicky: 21:57 She’s very cry-ey today. I don’t know.
Shane: 22:00 I mean, I just started hearing her, so I think you’re okay.
Vicky: 22:03 Yeah. Yeah. She’s amping up. She’s doing good.
Anupama: 22:07 This is precisely why I come to the studio because I can imagine all sorts of such craziness happening at home. I have a drain which is completely clogged and I’ve just left it there and I’ve come here.
Shane: 22:16 There you go. Well, we appreciate you prioritizing us-
Anupama: 22:25 I was running away. I was running away, basically.
Shane: 22:28 Oh, that’s great.
Awesome podcast! Kudos to Dr. Anant Pande for sharing such phenomenal hard work there