Survival of Antarctic Penguins

How will climate change affect penguins and their habitats?

We have known since the 1980’s that the Emperor penguin population has been decreasing, but at that time didn’t have the technology to understand why. Due to all the technological advancements that have been made, we are now able to accurately say that the diminishing of the Emperor penguin population is directly caused by climate change.

During the 1970’s, there was an unusually long warm spell in the Southern Ocean which saw a large decrease in the Emperor penguin population also. [1]The warm spell of the late 1970s is related to the Antarctic circumpolar wave-huge masses of warm and cold water that circle Antarctica about once every eight years. In response to this cycle, Terre Adelie experiences a warming period every four or five years that generally lasts about a year.

The reason that the climate change affects the penguins is that the warm air and sea surface temperatures in the Antarctica cause the ice to melt, which brings on the decline of krill, small shrimp-like sea crustaceans which are the sole staple of the penguins’ diet. This in turn leads to shortage of food for the penguins, leading to starvation and therefore a drop in population.

Now there is another fact which complicates things too. When there is extensive ice, the Emperor penguins hatch fewer eggs. So even though at this time there is a more constant food source, the fact that the penguins hatch fewer eggs when there is more ice means that the population decline still cannot recover sufficiently.

The reason that the penguins have this problem is that after the female penguin lays her eggs, she leaves them with her partner to take care of and keep warm until hatching while she goes out across the ice and out to sea to feed in order to bring back food which she regurgitates to her newly hatched young. The problem is that when there is more ice, it takes her much longer to return, sometimes even months.

During this time, the male penguin, due to waiting so long for her return, starts to starve and has to abandon the eggs, or maybe by this stage the chick, in search of food for himself. So with no parent to protect and keep the eggs and or chicks warm and safe, the eggs won’t make it to hatching and the chick if there is one by then will die without food and warmth from the parent.

So this is how the continuing climate change is having an adverse effect on the penguins and their habitat. Because of the drop in population during prior years, the penguins now seem to be in this catch-22 situation whereby they can’t stabilize their population again, which will eventually lead to the extinction of another one of the earth’s amazing species?

[1] National Geographic – Penguin Decline in Antarctica Linked With Climate Change