The Future of Emperor Penguins Is in Doubt

A new analysis shows that global warming will reduce Antarctica's emperor penguin population by nearly 20% over the next 80 years as the sea ice on which they breed becomes less secure.

For the most part, climate change is proving detrimental to the world's animals, though some certainly stand to benefit. Antarctica's iconic emperor penguin, it would now appear, does not appear to be one of them — despite the fact that climate change is bringing warmer temperatures to the frozen continent. The problem is loss of breeding habitat.

The new study, which is the first to project the long-term outlook for emperor penguins, suggests that penguin populations will rise slightly until the 2050s, but then experience a decline of 20% by 2100; that would represent a loss of about 120,000 individuals. The report urged governments to list the birds as endangered.

Reuters reports:

More sea ice around a continent the size of the United States and Mexico combined tends to mean more shrimp-like krill, on which penguins feed. Krill eat algae that grow under ice.

But emperor penguins, which breed on sea ice with the males huddling together to keep eggs warm in winter darkness and temperatures down to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit), are vulnerable to shifting sea ice.

"There is a goldilocks point for ice and emperor penguins," said Phil Trathan, an expert at the British Antarctic Survey.

Too much ice means the females, which can travel 100 kms (60 miles) to the sea to catch fish, must waddle ever further. Too little ice means waves could break up colonies in spring.

Trathan said it was unclear if the ungainly birds could adapt by climbing onto land or higher ice. Four emperor penguin colonies had recently been found on ice shelves, above sea level where glaciers spill off the land.

Environmentalists are urging governments to set up a marine reserve in the Ross Sea and off East Antarctica.

Read the entire study at Nature Climate Change: "Projected continent-wide declines of the emperor penguin under climate change."

Image: BMJ/Shutterstock