Emperor Penguins May Be Marching to Extinction by 2100

By Eliza Strickland | January 27, 2009 10:17 am

emperor penguinsThe predicted loss of sea ice around Antarctica over the next century may doom one of the celebrities of the animal world to extinction. Emperor penguins, the species of these aquatic flightless birds featured in the Oscar-winning 2005 documentary “March of the Penguins,” breed on Antarctic sea ice and dive from the sea ice to feed on krill, fish and squid [Reuters]. In a new study, researchers examined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) projections on how global warming will alter sea ice coverage around Antarctica, and say the models don’t auger well for the emperor penguins.

The researchers combined ten different climate projections with a “population dynamics” model describing the mating patterns and breeding success of emperor penguins. The model has been honed using 43 years’ worth of observations of an emperor colony in Antarctica’s Terre Adelie…. They then ran 1,000 simulations of penguin population growth or decline under each of those 10 climate scenarios [BBC News]. The results predicted that the 6,000 breeding pairs in Terre Adelie could be reduced to 400 pairs by 2100. Researchers say this 95 percent decline qualifies as a “quasi-extinction,” as the colony’s tiny remaining population would be vulnerable to diseases and genetic defects. They also say that the possible demise of the Terre Adelie colony could indicate the fate of the entire species (about 200,000 breeding pairs currently live in 40 colonies around Antarctica).

The models showed a 40 percent chance that the Terre Adelie colony would decline to quasi-extinction status by the end of the century, researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [subscription required]. Study coauthor Hal Caswell says those odds aren’t good. “If I offered you an investment with a 40% chance of losing 95% of your money, would you take it?” he says [New Scientist].

To avoid extinction, the penguins would have to adapt to the shrinking ice by either migrating to new territory or changing their breeding patterns, arriving on the ice and laying their eggs earlier in the season. Unfortunately, Emperor Penguins are known for being slow to change. “The penguin is long-lived, and climate change is happening very quickly, so there will be significant impact on the population before many generations have passed,” says [study coauthor] Hal Caswell…. “Thus it will be difficult for adaptation, even if possible, to happen fast enough” [Popular Science].

Related Content:
80beats: Emperor Left Out in the Cold as Other Penguins Get U.S. Protection
80beats: Antarctica Is Definitely Feeling the Heat From Global Warming
80beats: 2 Trillion Tons of Polar Ice Lost in 5 Years, and Melting Is Accelerating
DISCOVER: Beacon Bird of Climate Change

Image: Samuel Blanc

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Good news everybody! The emperor penguin lived in Antarctica the first time it was a warm, balmy tropic paradise. They have those old genes for the tropics built into their make-up.

    NOT that I’m saying it will be easy for them. In fact, it’ll probably be one of the bigger challenges they’ve faced in their long evolution. But we know they can do it, because they have done it before. Maybe they’ll need our help. Maybe at some day there won’t be any life left on this planet that hasn’t felt the scalpel of a genegineer, since we’ve unbalanced the climate cycle, assuming we can get on top of things and don’t ourselves become dinosaurs.

    But in the meantime, awareness of the present and past are the ONLY thing that can prepare us for the future. We ignore this awareness at our own peril.

  • Steve

    Considering that Antarctic sea ice is at its all-time greatest extent on record, if there is any worrying to be done, it would be lack of access to the ocean.

  • P.D.

    Steve: Don’t forget that fresh water freezes at a higher temperature than salt water, and also floats on top of salt water. So, if there is a lot of freshwater icemelt running off into the ocean, it will lead to a short-term increase in winter sea ice. On the flip side, it also should (in theory) melt later (has to get warmer before melting), but isn’t. Which means temperatures are in fact warmer than before, since the ice is actually melting earlier in the season.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    I personally believe that the “best thing to do is nothing”, approach is outdated, and ignorant as well. I would also like to point out that if the penguins were selfish, they would not be alive. Their co-operative society is why they are here for us to marvel at.

  • http://www.docdiamond.com/ Susy

    Could someone please explain why the penguins need the ice. Why can’t they breed on land? Is this not possible for some reason?

    Also, penguins won’t simply die from the fact that the air is warmer will they? They seem to be OK in zoos in warmer countries.

    Sorry if these are silly questions! Thanks for any responses!

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