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Milestone for Chile: polar scientists will study Emperor penguin after unprecedented expedition to Antarctica

Researchers from the Millennium Institute of Biodiversity of Antarctic and Subantarctic Ecosystems (BASE), Dr. Juliana Vianna and Dr. Fabiola León, became the first Latin American group of scientists to obtain Emperor penguin samples after returning from an international Antarctic campaign that reached the remote Larsen B ice shelf.

Santiago, April 25, 2023 – An international expedition that ventured into deep Antarctica, together with a meticulous work plan, were the ingredients for the researchers from Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, PhD. Juliana Vianna and PhD. Fabiola León, to become the first Latin American scientists who -from Chile- obtained emperor penguin samples, after a 15-day Antarctic campaign to the inhospitable Weddell Sea.

Researchers from the Millennium Institute BASE in the field. Image: M. Institute BASE/ N. Politis

“It was an important preparation work, which began with a monitoring of the scientific work that has been carried out worldwide on emperor penguins, together with the field work, which required walking for several hours on a floating ice platform in the so-called East Antarctic in the Atlantic Ocean”, emphasizes PhD. Juliana Vianna, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, researcher at the Millennium Institute BASE, and also alternate director of the Center for Genome Regulation (CRG).

Sub-zero temperatures, strict biosafety protocols and walks of more than five hours on the ice were part of the work carried out by both UC scientists in Antarctica. The challenge consisted in taking blood samples from four adult emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri), information that will be analyzed in the coming months in Santiago, thanks to state-of-the-art analysis methodologies that will be developed by scientific teams of the Laboratory of Molecular Biodiversity of the UC Faculty of Biological Sciences. The results will allow us to know details of the genetic and evolutionary history of the emperor penguins, and how this species faces the Climate Change in the Antarctic continent.Years of penguin research

“The results of this expedition will complement the work we have been doing for several years on the genetics of penguins such as the Southern Yellow Tufted (Eudyptes chrysocome), Gentoo (Pygoscelis papua) and Adelie (Pygoscelis adeliae),” says Vianna Ph.D., also a researcher at the UC Institute for Sustainable Development and the LiLi Millennium Nucleus.

Emperor penguin. Image: M. Institute BASE/ N. Politis

“Our work, a pioneer in the field of scientific research with emperor penguins carried out from Chile, included strict biosecurity protocols – such as the use of masks, goggles and gloves – and also took care not to disturb the emperors, which are not accustomed to human presence in these remote latitudes,” says PhD. Fabiola León, research assistant at the Millennium Institute BASE.

Adult emperor penguins can weigh between 20 and 45 kilos, and can exceed 120 cm in height. The blood samples were obtained from the birds’ feet through a procedure that lasted between four to five minutes, and ended with a small water-based dye mark on the penguins’ chests, which allowed the scientists to identify the species to be studied.

During the weeks that the research team was in the deep Antarctic, PhD. Juliana Vianna and PhD. Fabiola León, together with the support of Julieta Orlando Ph.D from University of Chile and Fabiola León Ph.D, were able to identify the species to be studied. Julieta Orlando from the University of Chile, and the logistic team of the French companies SEDNA Expeditions and Ponant, took samples of Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), Antarctic tern (Sterna vittata) and Antarctic cormorant (Leucocarbo bransfieldensis) in the framework of the International Scientific Collaboration Expedition: Weddell Sea and Larsen B Ice Shelf, carried out by the Millennium Institute BASE and scientists from France, United Kingdom and United States at the beginning of this year.

Researchers from the Millennium Institute BASE in the field. Image: M. Institute BASE/ N. Politis

The polar researchers emphasize the importance of collaboration and interdiscipline, anticipating that during this year the penguins will continue to make news from Chile: “Between September 4 and 9 the entire scientific community will meet in Viña del Mar as we will hold the XI International Penguin Congress (, which still has some places available“, says PhD. Vianna.

The Millennium Institute of Biodiversity of Antarctic and Subantarctic Ecosystems, also known as Millennium Institute BASE, belongs to the Millennium Science Initiative, a program of the National Research and Development Agency (ANID), belonging to the Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation of Chile. More information at


Photographs and text: Millennium Institute BASE