The population of emperor penguins could be reduced by as much as two-thirds by the end of the century, a study conducted on Sunday concluded. Global warming trends are having a devastating impact on the sea ice where the penguins have established their colonies.
Stephanie Jenouvrier, the biologist who led the research team, is rallying for governments to place the birds on the endangered species list. Jenouvrier believes placing the emperor species on the endangered species list will serve as a new model for conservationists. The birds are being considered in the US for inclusion in the US Endangered Species Act.
However, acknowledging the penguins as an endangered species will accomplish little in itself. Nevertheless, the news could prompt more direct regulations which would help curb reductions in the population. The Endangered Species Act was established for this exact reason. According to Hal Caswell, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, listing the species as endangered will make people aware of the situation and set greater efforts into motion. Caswell claims having a mandate against factors indirectly contributing to reductions in the population could be greatly beneficial for the survival of the emperor penguins. Potential conservation efforts could include new restrictions on fishing, as many birds are lost from being accidentally caught in nets. In addition, searches are underway to locate potential refuges for the population as their habitat faces irrecoverable damage. The Ross Sea, located below the South Pole, is being monitored for areas of resettlement as all factors point to a decline in the population of emperor penguins. A colony in the Ross Sea, being one of the last places to be affected by the rising change in temperature, would provide only a temporary solution.
Not all colonies of penguins will be affected immediately. Indeed, some may benefit from the change in sea ice, but it would be a momentary reprieve at best. Adult males in the emperor penguin population traditionally huddle together on constantly shifting sea ice in winter to keep newly laid eggs warm while their female partners hunt to bring back food when the hatchlings arrive. Keeping the amount of ice balanced will play a crucial role in determining the future of the flightless birds. Too much ice would force the females, who already must travel 60 miles to forage for food, to walk even further from home. Less ice could potentially expose the colony to rising tides and eradicate the penguins in large numbers.
It has become easier than ever to keep track of the emperor penguins as a discovery in 2009 found that stains left by droppings from colonies could be identified in satellite images. Other species of penguins are harder to track by satellite because they have different breeding grounds. Four colonies of birds appear to have receded back on ice shelves high above sea levels, but it remains to be seen whether other populations will adapt to their situation by establishing new colonies on higher ground. All signs point to a decline in the population of emperor penguins as climate change continues to have an adverse effect on their habitat.
By Sam Williams