Among the great tragedies associated with climate change is that it is causing one of the greatest species extinctions of all time – a majority of plants and animals won’t be able to adapt fast enough to the changing climate.
But there’s some hope for Antarctic Emperor Penguins as a new study shows they may be adapting to environmental changes.
Satellite observations reveal that penguin colonies are actually moving away from traditional breeding grounds when there’s not enough ice.
“These charismatic birds tend to breed on sea ice because it gives them relatively easy access to waters where they hunt for food. Satellite observations captured of one colony in 2008, 2009 and 2010 show that the concentration of annual sea ice was dense enough to sustain a colony. But this was not the case in 2011 and 2012 when sea ice didn’t form until a month after the breeding season began. During those years the birds moved up onto the neighbouring floating ice shelf to raise their young," says Peter Fretwell, lead author of the research and from the British Antarctic Survey.
“What’s particularly surprising is that climbing up the sides of a floating ice shelf – which at this site can be up to 30 metres high – is a very difficult manoeuvre for emperor penguins. Whilst they are very agile swimmers they have often been thought of as clumsy out of the water,” he adds.
Reporting this week in the online journal, PLOS ONE, a team of scientists from British Antarctic Survey, the Australian Antarctic Division and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in California, describe this extraordinary change in behaviour.
Because emperor penguins rely on sea ice as a breeding platform coupled with concerns about changing patterns of sea ice, the species is designated as ‘near threatened’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.
Scientific models suggest that levels of sea ice around Antarctica will decline over coming decades. Some forecasts predict Emperor Penguin numbers will halve before 2052 and more northerly colonies could be lost.
Barbara Wienecke from the Australian Antarctic Division says, “These new findings are an important step forward in helping us understand what the future may hold for these animals, however, we cannot assume that this behaviour is widespread in other penguin populations. The ability of these four colonies to relocate to a different environment – from sea ice to ice shelf – in order to cope with local circumstances, was totally unexpected. We have yet to discover whether or not other species may also be adapting to changing environmental conditions.”
Whereas sea-ice is frozen salt water, ice shelves are made up of glacial ice that has flowed from the land into the sea. Ice cliffs can form at the outer edge of an ice shelf and they can be up to 60 metres high.
Read our article, Humans Shrink to Hobbit-Size in Warmer World.
Here is the Emperor Penguin study: