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Collaborative Research: Phytoplankton Phenology in the Antarctic: Drivers, Patterns, and Implications for the Adélie Penguin

The aim of study is to understand how climate-related changes in snow and ice affect predator populations in the Antarctic, using the Adélie penguin as a focal species due to its long history as a Southern Ocean ‘sentinel’ species and the number of long-term research programs monitoring its abundance, distribution, and breeding biology.  Understanding the environmental forcings that control predator population dynamics is critically important for projecting the state of populations under future climate change scenarios, and for designing better conservation strategies for the Antarctic ecosystem. For the first time, datasets from a network of observational sites for the Adélie penguin across the entire Antarctic will be combined and analyzed, with a focus on linkages among the ice environment, primary production, and the population responses of Adélie penguins. The results of this project can be used to illustrate intuitively to the general public the complex interactions between ice, ocean, pelagic food web and top predators. This project also offers an excellent platform to demonstrate the process of climate-change science - how scientists simulate climate change scenarios and interpret model results.  This project supports the training of undergraduate and graduate students in the fields of polar oceanography, plankton and seabird ecology, coupled physical-biological modeling and mathematical ecology. The results will be broadly disseminated to the general oceanographic research community through scientific workshops, conferences and peer-reviewed journal articles, and to undergraduate and graduate education communities, K-12 schools and organizations, and the interested public through web-based servers using existing infrastructure at the proposers’ institutions. Web based users will be able to access sea ice, phytoplankton and seabird data products generated from this project.


The key question to be addressed in this project is how climate impacts the timing of periodic biological events (phenology) and how interannual variation in this periodic forcing influences the abundance of penguins in the Antarctic. The focus will be on the timing of ice algae and phytoplankton blooms because the high seasonality of sea ice and associated pulsed primary productivity are major drivers of the Antarctic food web. This study will also examine the responses of Adélie penguins to changes in sea ice dynamics and ice algae-phytoplankton phenology. Adélie penguins, like many other Antarctic seabirds, are long-lived, upper trophic-level predators that integrate the effects of sea ice on the food web at regional scales, and thus serve as a reliable biological indicator of environmental changes. The proposed approach is designed to accommodate the limits of measuring and modeling the intermediate trophic levels between phytoplankton and penguins (e.g., zooplankton and fish) at the pan-Antarctic scale, which are important but latent variables in the Southern Ocean food web.  Through the use of remotely sensed and in situ data, along with state of the art statistical approaches (e.g. wavelet analysis) and numerical modeling, this highly interdisciplinary study will advance our understanding of polar ecosystems and improve the projection of future climate change scenarios.


  • Li, Y., R. Ji, S. Jenouvrier, M. Jin, and J. Stroeve. 2016. Synchronicity between ice retreat and phytoplankton bloom in circum-Antarctic polynyas. Geophysical Research Letters, 2016GL067937,
  • Stroeve, JC, S Jenouvrier, GG Campbell, C Barbraud and K Delord, 2016: Mapping and assessing variability in the Antarctic marginal ice zone, pack ice and coastal polynyas in two sea ice algorithms with implications on breeding success of snow petrels. Cryosphere: Vol. 10, 1823-1843, issn: 1994-0416, ids: DW6ZI, doi: 10.5194/tc-10-1823-2016, 22-Aug 2016
  • Youngflesh C., Jenouvrier S., Hinke J.T., DuBois L., St. Leger J., Trivelpiece S.G, Trivelpiece W.Z. and Lynch H.J. Rethinking normal: Synchrony-enhanced stochasticity in the breeding phenology of a colonial seabird. Journal of Animal Ecology.
  • Youngflesh C., Jenouvrier S., Li Y., Ji R., Ainley D.G., Ballard G., Barbraud C., Delord K., Dugger K.M., Emmerson L.M., Fraser W.R., Hinke J.T., Lyver P.O’B., Olmastroni S., Southwell C.J., Trivelpiece S.G, Trivelpiece W.Z. and Lynch H.J. 2017. Circumpolar analysis of the Adélie penguin reveals the importance of environmental variability in phenological mismatch. Ecology, 98(4): 940-951.
  • Che-Castaldo C., Jenouvrier S., Youngflesh C., Shoemaker K., Humphries G., McDowall P., Landrum L., Holland M., Li Y., Ji R. and Lynch H. 2017. Pan-Antarctic analysis reveals the importance of stochastic forcing for Adélie penguins: How noisy is too noisy for adaptive management? Nature Communications, 8(1): 832
  • Iles, D and S. Jenouvrier. Projected population consequences of climate change. Book Chapter # 12 for Møller, AP, O Dunn, P, eds. Effects of climate change on birds. Oxford University Press. 2019.
  • LaRue, M. A., Iles, D., Labrousse, S., Salas, L., Ballard, G., Ainley, D., & Saenz, B., 2019. A possible Adélie penguin sub-colony on fast ice by Cape Crozier, Antarctica. Antarctic Science, 31(4), 189-194.
  • Iles D., H. Lynch, R. Ji, C. Barbraud, K. Delord, and S, Jenouvrier, 2019. Sea ice predicts long-term trends in Adélie penguin population growth, but not annual fluctuations: results from a range-wide multi-scale analysis.  Global Change Biology (under review).
  • Youngflesh, C., Y. Li, H. J. Lynch, K. Delord, C. Barbraud, R. Ji, S. Jenouvrier, Divergent trends and unsynchronized dynamics in a seabird community - the challenge in finding effective ecological proxies. Ecography (under review).

Funding Agencies

The National Science Foundation under grant number #PLR-1341558 funded this research.


Rubao Ji (WHOI), Stephanie Jenouvrier (WHOI), Julienne C Stroeve (NSIDC), Meibing Jin (UAF), Heather Lynch (SUNY)



Marika Holland, Laura Andrum,  David G. Ainley, Grant Ballard, Christophe Barbraud, Karine Delord, Katie M. Dugger, William R. Fraser, Jefferson T. Hinke, Phil O’B. Lyver, Silvia Olmastroni, Susan G. Trivelpiece, Wayne Z. Trivelpiece

PhD Student:

Casey Youngflesh (SUNY)


Yun Li and Dave Iles (WHOI)