Antarctica’s second largest colony of emperor penguins collapsed in 2016, with more than 10,000 chickens disappeared and the population has not recovered, according to a new study.
Many of the adults moved nearby, showing satellite imagery, but the fact that the emperor penguins are vulnerable in what is considered the safest part of their assortment gives rise to serious long-term concerns, says Phil Trathan, co-author of the paper and conservation biology director with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England.
“That means these places are not as safe as we thought before,” says Dr. Trathan.
Emperor penguins – the world’s largest breed and molt on sea ice, pieces of frozen sea water. Unfortunately on land, they cannot climb icy cliffs and are so exposed to warming weather and high winds that whip over the ice. Under the influence of the strongest El Niño in 60 years, September 2015 was a particularly stormy month in Halley Bay in Antarctica, with heavy winds and record low sea ice.
The penguins usually stayed there from April to December when their chickens fled or had grown their feathers to fly but the storm occurred before the chicks were old enough.
These conditions, Dr. Trathan, had led to the loss of about 14,500 to 25,000 eggs or chickens the first year and the colony has not recovered. The study called the three-year downturn unprecedented: “Three years of almost total offense.”
Still, the population of Halley Bay represents only about 8 percent of the world’s population of emperor penguins, Dr. Trathan said, so that the loss does not pose a threat to the future of the species. About 130,000 to 250,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins live in 54 colonies worldwide, he said.
British scientists have been studying penguins in the area since 1956 and had never seen a decrease in this magnitude, he said.
Other researchers have predicted drastic declines in emperor penguin populations at the end of the century due to the climate change. Stephanie Jenouvrier, an associate researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, has predicted a worldwide decline of 30 percent over the coming decades. Her model did not include significant events such as the stormy season in 2015, which is likely to make the situation worse, she said.
Several researchers said they were encouraged by satellite evidence suggesting that many of the animals could move to a colony called Dawson-Lambton, about 35 miles south, which has seen a more than ten-fold increase in penguins in recent years.
“It is a very large movement and a large number of birds that could move between two colonies after an extreme event,” said Dr. Jenouvrier. “I think this is very cool to be able to show it.”
Heather Lynch, a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University in New York, considered this relocation as “extremely hopeful”, a sign that the animals could adapt to climate change at least in the short term. In previous models, she said that researchers often assumed that the penguins would not find another home.
“I hope there are refugees that they can move to for at least some time and it could buffer some of the most dramatic effects of climate change,” says Dr. Lynch.
The new study also shows the power of satellite data to track species in the most inaccessible parts of the world, “We have at least one way of keeping track of these birds from the world’s more distant places,” she said. [HalleyBay’spopulationdeclineisstilltroublesomeaswastewasfastratherthanagradualreductioninclimatechange
“You do not know how close the cliff you are until it is too late,” said Dr. Lynch, “and you cannot assume that you will be able to return from the cliff as you coming there. “