Penguins are the proverbial canary in a coal mine when it comes to gauging climate change, says Citadel biology professor Paul Nolan.
So he packed his freezing-weather gear and is headed to Antarctica Friday to study them.
Nolan, who studies animal behavior focusing mostly on birds, said he's been studying penguins for more than a decade, including taking several trips south of the equator to observe the waddling black and white creatures in their natural habitats.
He'll be working on the penguin study with Oxford University professor Tom Hart. People can learn more about the work, at PenguinLifelines.org.
Nolan, who also runs the nonprofit group CharlestonAudubon.org,said The Citadel Foundation gave him a $3,000 grant to help him with his research. He expects to share much of what he experiences with his students in future classes.
Jay Dowd, the foundation's chief executive officer, said Nolan's research is one of many ground-breaking projects conducted on campus by faculty, graduate students, and cadets to which the foundation contributes.
Nolan said it's important to go to Antarctica because "ongoing climate change is most pronounced at the poles." In Antarctica, there's been a 5- to 6-degree temperature increase in the past 100 years," he said.
The researchers plan to study the birds in two major ways. They will collect and analyze feathers that drop from the birds, he said, because feathers contain stress hormones, an indicator of environmental change.
They also will place cameras in penguin colonies that snap pictures every hour. The cameras will remain in place for about a year, he said, then researchers will go back and collect the cards from the cameras and study the photos. "The big idea behind this is that we want to monitor the behavior without bothering the birds."
A huge number of photographs will be collected, Nolan said, and members of the public can volunteer to help annotate them. The photographs will be available on April 25, which is International Penguin Day, he said.
Nolan said his unique role in the project is to study the color and color changes of the birds, especially in their beaks and feet. Color can reveal a great deal about an animal's health, he said.
Temperatures in Antarctica this time of year range from 0 to 20 degrees, he said, but he's ready for the cold.
The research team will travel on a cruise ship, and take Zodiac boats to various penguin colonies each day, he said. It's very difficult to find a way to travel in that part of the world, he said, but cruise ships work well. The researchers will make some presentations on penguins to other travelers, he said.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.