Out of thousands of chicks born to about 18,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, only two have survived a “catastophic breeding event”. The rest of the chicks have reportedly died of starvation.
All but two chicks survived a catastrophic breeding failure [Photo via Alamy]
These penguins form a colony with a population of about 40,000 on Petrels Island in Antarctica. This more recent instance of breeding failure is actually already the second in just four years. Back in 2013, the same colony had experienced a similar event. That time, however, none of the chicks survived. At the time, the colony had a total of 20,196 breeding pairs, more than there are now. None of these pairs produced a surviving chick. Researchers studying the colony reportedly found the gristly sight of dead chicks and unhatched eggs strewn around the snow.
What, then, is killing these birds? Researchers say that climate change may have a hand in this tragic breeding event, seeing as the changing temperatures have affected the penguins’ access to food sources.
Adult Adélie penguins [Photo by Jason Auch]
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are unseasonably large amounts of ice surrounding the unfortunate colony of Adélie penguins. However, if climate change is to blame for this, then shouldn’t there be less ice in the area instead of more?
Though most of Antarctica has been experiencing sea ice loss, Petrels Island is an exception. When the Mertz glacier tongue broke apart, an iceberg the size of the country of Luxembourg broke free. This occurred just 250 kilometers away from Terre Adélie, home to Adélie penguins. As a result, there were significant changes in ice formation and ocean currents in the region.
Adult penguins going off to forage, leaving their chicks at home [Photo via Oceanwide Expeditions]
Because of this, adult penguins have had to travel 100 kilometers farther than they usually would to forage for food. The chicks, left at home, were in sub-optimal conditions. They weren’t able to fend for themselves, and there were rains in the area as well. The downy feathers of the chicks weren’t yet waterproof, which likely exacerbated things for the starving young chicks.
Changes in sea ice, be it a decrease or an increase, are likely to impact the penguins in Terre Adélie. The expansion of sea ice will push the penguins away from their food source, while shrinking ice is likely to cause changes in the penguins’ food chain.
Penguins and their chicks [Photo by Flickr user Dileep]
There are now urgent calls for the creation of more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the area. There will soon be a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), in which the creation of MPAs can be discussed.
Yan Ropert-Coudert of France’s National Center for Scientific Research says that penguins also need protection for other anthropogenic threats, such as fishing and tourism. While an MPA won’t be able to do much against changes that have already taken place, it can help keep things from getting worse for the penguins. For example, establishing an MPA including Terre Adélie will prohibit exploratory krill fisheries, which may become competition for Adélie penguins. These penguins, after all, mostly feed on krill. With any luck, penguin populations can make a comeback in the coming years.
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