Emperor penguins living in Antarctica are in severe danger of extinction due to climate change. Researchers at the Argentine Antarctic Institute (IAA) believe the animals will disappear within 30 to 40 years due to their reliance on ice for survival.
Emperor penguins are the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species. They have the longest reproductive cycle among penguins. After a chick is born, parents continue carrying the baby between their legs for warmth until the small penguin has developed all feathers.
Every August, scientists at Argentina’s Marambio Base in Antarctica travel 65 km (40 miles) to reach the nearest emperor penguin colony. The researchers count, weigh, and measure the chicks, collect geographical coordinates, and take blood samples.
Emperor penguins reproduce on marine ice. “When the ice platform loses stability, the little penguins, the ones who are growing, the chicks of that season, might not have their feathers, they might not be ready to go to the sea,” Marcela Libertelli, biologist at IAA, told news agency Reuters.
“The ground they rest on, where the colony is developing, breaks, and if the water reaches them, they aren’t ready to swim, they don’t have their definitive grown-up waterproof feathers, and they die because of the cold and drown,” she said.
“That happened in a colony in the Weddell Sea with the Halley emperor penguin colony. For almost three years in a row, there was an almost zero reproductive success because the sea pack was dismantling prematurely, and all the chicks died,” she added.
If climate change is not reversed, scientists predict a grim future for the species. In April, the World Meteorological Organization warned about more ice slides, extreme temperatures and unusual rains in Antarctica.
“The [climate] projections that exist foresee that the colonies [of emperor penguins] located between latitudes 60 and 70 degrees [south] will disappear in the next decades, say in the next 30/40 years,” Libertelli said.
The rise of fishing and tourism in Antarctica has also put the emperor’s future at risk by affecting krill, one of the primary food sources for penguins.
“The disappearance of any species is a tragedy for the planet, whether small or large, plant or animal, it doesn’t matter,” Libertelli said. “It’s a biodiversity loss, and surely the connections they have with the environment are much more than the human being can imagine.”
She explained that the food chains of extreme places have fewer links, fewer members: “It means that the disappearance of one of them would have very serious consequences on the ecosystem.”
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