The Second-Largest Emperor Penguin Colony in Antarctica Vanishes


Kylie Ha, Staff Writer

The Antarctic’s second-largest colony of emperor penguins collapsed in 2016, with more than 10,000 chicks lost, and the population has not recovered fully. For three years, beginning with 2016, researchers have found an almost “total breeding failure” within these world’s largest penguins.

As satellite imagery shows, many of the adult penguins have relocated due to how vulnerable they are in what has been considered the safest part of their range. Not only does this bring confusion to the public, but it raises serious long-term concerns, according to Phil Trathan, the paper’s co-author and head of the conservation biology with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England. “That means that these places aren’t as safe as we thought previously,” said Dr. Trathan.

The massive penguin colony has “all but disappeared,” stated the research team at the British Antarctic Survey. Emperor penguins, the world’s largest breed of penguins, both breed and molt on sea ice, which are chunks of frozen seawater. As they are awkward on land, they are unable to climb icy cliffs, making them extremely vulnerable to warming weather and high winds that whip across the ice in different seasons. Under the influence of the strongest El Niño in over 60 years, September 2015 was a particularly stormy month in the area of Halley Bay, Antarctica – with heavy winds and record-low sea ice.

From April to December, the penguins generally stayed in the same area until their chicks grew feathers, but the storm occurred before the chicks even had a chance to grow. Those conditions, stated by Dr. Trathan and his research team, appeared to have led the loss of about 14,500 to 25,000 eggs or chicks that first year, and the colony has not rebounded. The case study called it the “three-year decline unprecedented.”

However, the population of emperor penguins in Halley Bay represents only an estimated 8% of the world’s population. Although this loss doesn’t pose a threat to the future of the remaining species, roughly about 130,000 to 250,000 breeding pairs of penguins live in 54 colonies worldwide. British researchers studying penguins in nearby locations since 1956 had “never seen a decline of this magnitude.”

Other scientists have projected drastic declines in emperor penguin population by the end of the century, because of climate change. Stephanie Jenouvrier, an associate researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, has predicted a 30% worldwide drop in the coming decades. Her model did not include significant events such as the 2015 stormy season, which will make the situation worse.

The Halley Bay decline in population is troublesome because the drop-off was rapid, rather than a gradual decrease in the face of climate change.

Photo Courtesy of USATODAY.COM