Biologists Warn Emperor Penguins Are Endangered

Biologists warned in a new study that Antarctica’s emperor penguins are endangered by global warming. The study predicts that climate change will cut the continent’s 600,000-strong population by at least a fifth by 2100 because the sea ice will become too unstable for the birds to live on.

Reuters reports that the report called on governments to list the penguin species as endangered, even though populations in 45 known colonies are expected to rise slightly by 2050 before they decline. A listing like this would likely pose restrictions on tourism and fishing companies near where the birds live.

The study published Sunday is the first to project the long-term effects of climate change on Antarctica’s largest penguins. Overall, numbers of the birds were set to fall by at least 19 percent from current levels as sea ice melts. Two-thirds of colonies will likely decline by more than half, according to the report.

Hal Caswell of the U.S. Woods Hole Oceanography Institution, who co-authored the study in the journal Nature Climate Change, told Reuters, “It’s not happy news for the emperor penguin.” Conservation experts with Red List add that populations of most of 18 types of penguins are decreasing.

Emperor penguin populations are rated stable, while only king, adelie, and chinstrap penguins are growing in numbers. The impact of climate change on penguins is less advertised than that or polar bears.

Along with calling for the species to be labeled endangered, the Guardian reports that study authors called on marine reserves to bugger the fish stocks the penguins need to survive. Caswell noted, “The population is declining. Unless something changes to stop that, the population will go into extinction.”

Emperor penguins are a top predator on the ice-covered continent, much like polar bears in the North. This means that the main threat to their survival comes from climate change melting the sea ice they need to live on.

The loss of sea ice is reducing the supply of krill, the penguins’ main food source. Young krill feed off algae living in the ice. When the ice melts, so do the small shrimp-like crustaceans. In the short-term changes in the the sea ice could boost some of the population, because sea ice off the western coast of Antarctica has been increasing.

However, by 2100, all 45 known emperor penguin colonies in the country will decline in population because of sea ice loss. Those located along the coasts of the eastern Weddell Sea and the western Indian Ocean will see the sharpest drops.

[Image by Dbush]