Due to climatic change, UN scientists have warned that Antarctica's King Penguins could become extinct.
According to an AFP report, this prediction has been made by an international team of investigators, who looked at the penguins' main breeding grounds and found that a tiny warming of the Southern Ocean by the El Niño led to a massive fall in the birds' ability to survive.
King penguins are second in size only to the emperor penguin and live on islands on the fringes of Antarctica in the southern Indian Ocean, with an estimated two million breeding pairs.
The species is unusual in that it takes a whole year for all the birds to complete their breeding cycle: the ritual of courtship, egg laying, incubating and chick rearing.
This extreme length, spanning the Antarctic winter and summer, means the birds are vulnerable to downturns in seasonal food resources for incubating their eggs and nurturing their chicks.
Their main diet, small fish and squid, depends on krill. These minute crustaceans are in turn extremely sensitive to temperature rise.
The research team, led by Dr Yvon Le Maho of France's National Centre for Scientific Research, marked 456 penguins with subcutaneous electronic tags at a big breeding ground on Possession Island on the Crozet archipelago.
They buried radio antennas on pathways used by the penguins on the island and connected them to a computer that automatically recorded when the birds came and went.
The surveillance programme ran from November 1997 to April 2006, a period that included an El Niño, the cyclical warming event.
During the El Niño, penguins that were early breeders did well, but those that bred later were badly hit, as the progressively warmer seas made food rarer.
"An increase of just 0.25°C in surface sea temperature translated into a 9% decline in an adult bird's chance of survival," said Le Maho.
"Our findings suggest the king penguin populations are at heavy extinction risk under the current global warming," he added.