Scientists have warned that Emperor penguins may vanish if global temperatures and sea ice melting continues unabated. Emperor Penguins are Antarctica's largest and most iconic flightless birds.
"Over the last century, we have already observed the disappearance of the Dion Islets penguin colony close to the West Antarctic Peninsula," says biologist Stephanie Jenouvrier from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), US, who led the new study.
"In 1948 and the 1970s, scientists recorded more than 150 breeding pairs there. By 1999, the population was down to just 20 pairs, and in 2009, it had vanished entirely," adds Jenouvrier, the journal Global Change Biology reported.
Jenouvrier believes the decline of those penguins might be connected to a simultaneous decline in Antarctic sea ice due to warming temperatures in the region, according to a WHOI statement.
Unlike other sea birds, Emperor penguins breed and raise their young almost exclusively on sea ice. If that ice breaks up and disappears early in the breeding season, massive breeding failure may occur, says Jenouvrier.
"As it is, there's a huge mortality rate just at the breeding stages, because only 50 percent of chicks survive till the end of the breeding season, and then only half of those fledglings survive until the next year," she says.
Disappearing sea ice may also affect the penguins' food source. The birds feed primarily on fish, squid, and krill, a shrimplike creature, which in turn feeds on zooplankton and phytoplankton, tiny organisms that grow on the underside of the ice.
If the ice goes, Jenouvrier says, so will the plankton, causing a ripple effect through the food web that may starve the various species that penguins rely on as prey.
To project how penguin populations may fare in the future, Jenouvrier's team used data from several different sources, including climate models, sea ice forecasts, and a demographic model that Jenouvrier created of the Emperor penguin population at Terre Adelie, a coastal region of Antarctica where French scientists have conducted penguin observations for more than 50 years.
Combining this type of long-term population data with information on climate was key to the study, says Hal Caswell, a WHOI senior mathematical biologist and collaborator on the paper.