New weather patterns in the warming Antarctic are leaving thousands of penguins in peril, prompting calls for them to be specially protected.
A species that has come to symbolize Antarctica’s wealth of wildlife now faces mortal danger: climate change is putting emperor penguins in peril.
British scientists say the continent is warming with unparalleled speed, meaning the birds may soon have almost nowhere to breed. Some researchers think the number of emperors could be cut by more than half by 2100.
Philip Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, says: “The current rate of warming in parts of the Antarctic is greater than anything in the recent glaciological record.
“Though emperor penguins have experienced periods of warming and cooling over their evolutionary history, the current rates of warming are unprecedented.
“Currently, we have no idea how the emperors will adjust to the loss of their primary breeding habitat – sea ice. They are not agile, and climbing ashore across steep coastal land forms will be difficult.
“For breeding, they depend upon sea ice, and in a warming world there is a high probability that this will decrease. Without it, they will have little or no breeding habitat.”
It is not the first time scientists have sounded the alarm for the emperors. This time, though, they are urging potentially far-reaching action.
In a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, an international team of researchers, led by Dr Trathan, recommends new steps to protect and conserve the penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri).
Satellite images in 2012 suggested there were almost 600,000 of the birds in the Antarctic, roughly double the number estimated in 1992. The researchers involved in this latest report reviewed over 150 studies on the species and its environment as well as its behavior and character in relation to its breeding biology.
“Some colonies of emperor penguins may not survive the coming decades, so we must work to give as much protection as we can to the species”
Current climate change projections indicate that rising temperatures and changing wind patterns will damage the sea ice on which the emperors breed, with some studies showing populations likely to fall by more than 50% over this century.
Before breeding, both males and females must build their body reserves so that females can lay their single egg, and for males to fast while undertaking the entire egg incubation during the Antarctic winter.
Emperors are unique amongst birds because they breed on seasonal Antarctic sea ice which they need while incubating their eggs and raising their chicks.
They also need stable sea ice after they have completed breeding, during the time when they undergo their annual moult. They cannot enter the water then as their feathers are no longer waterproof, leaving them unable to enter the sea.
So the researchers are recommending that the IUCN status for the species be raised from “near-threatened” to “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. They say improvements in climate change forecasting of impacts on Antarctic wildlife would help, and recommend that the emperors should be listed by the Antarctic Treaty as a specially protected species.
Better protection will let scientists coordinate research into the penguins’ resilience to a range of different threats and stressors.
Dr Peter Fretwell, remote sensing specialist at BAS and a co-author of the study, says: “Some colonies of emperor penguins may not survive the coming decades, so we must work to give as much protection as we can to the species to give them the best chance.”
The UK was one of the countries which notified the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting at its 2019 meeting in July that emperor penguins were threatened by the loss of their breeding habitat and that further protection was needed.
A similar paper has also been submitted to this year’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which meets in the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, later this month.
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