Reconstructing the Paleo-Ecological Diet of Snow Petrels (Pagodroma nivea) From Modern Samples and Fossil Deposits: Implications for Southern Ocean Paleoenvironmental Reconstructions

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review


  • S. Berg - , University of Cologne (Author)
  • L. Emmerson - , Australian Antarctic Division (Author)
  • C. Heim - , University of Cologne (Author)
  • E. Buchta - , Chair of Geodetic Earth System Research, TUD Dresden University of Technology (Author)
  • T. Fromm - , Alfred Wegener Institute - Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (Author)
  • B. Glaser - , Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (Author)
  • W. D. Hermichen - , Alfred Wegener Institute - Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (Author)
  • J. Rethemeyer - , University of Cologne (Author)
  • C. Southwell - , Australian Antarctic Division (Author)
  • U. Wand - , Alfred Wegener Institute - Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (Author)
  • M. Zech - , Heisenberg Chair of Physical Geography with a Focus on Paleoenvironmental Research, TUD Dresden University of Technology (Author)
  • M. Melles - , University of Cologne (Author)


Snow petrels (Pagodroma nivea), which are endemic to the Antarctic region, produce proventricular stomach oil from ingested food for feeding purposes but also spit the oil in the immediate surrounds of the nests, where it forms encrustations over time (Antarctic mumiyo). These deposits provide a unique opportunity to understand the paleo-ecological diet of snow petrels and because the seabirds forage in the ocean, they potentially provide an archive of past marine environmental conditions in the Southern Ocean. For validating methods for reconstructions we use compositional data obtained on modern stomach oils and DNA data from fecal samples of snow petrels. We find that the distribution of carboxylic acid compounds in modern stomach oils and in the fossil deposits are consistent with variable contributions of fish and krill, which are the main constituents of modern snow petrel diet, and allows inference of past changes in snow petrel diet from the fossil record. Analyses of mumiyo deposits from six regions in East Antarctica reveal systematic differences in the isotopic composition of organic matter (δ13C and δ15N) and carboxylic acid patterns. This may suggest regional and/or temporal variability in the composition of snow petrels diet, likely differing in response to the prevailing environmental conditions in the foraging range of the birds, such as sea-ice variability, polynya activity and primary productivity. Our study provides confidence for using these approaches for broader scale paleo-studies in the future and for an assessment of the temporal changes and regional variability in snow petrel diet.


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2023JG007454
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2023


Sustainable Development Goals


  • Antarctica, fatty acids, paleoclimate, sea ice, stable isotopes, stomach oil deposits