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Emperor penguins adapt to global warming

Sun, 19th Jan 2014

Dominic Ford

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Emperor PenguinsRising temperatures in the Antarctic have led to the largest and heaviest species of penguin - the Emperor penguin - being classified as 'near threatened'.

However, recent satellite images obtained by an international collaboration of conservation groups - led by Peter Fretwell at the British Antarctic Survey - suggest that the Emperor penguin may be much more adaptable to a changing climate than was previously thought.

Emperor penguins rely on the formation of ice floes around the Antarctic coastline in order to breed. These ice sheets provide easy access to the sea, so that the giant birds are able to find fish to eat while raising their young on dry land.

However, rising temperatures mean that the extent of the ice floes which form each winter is shrinking, giving the penguins less room to breed. Unusually warm spells during the winters of 2011 and 2012 threatened to put the penguins under exceptional pressure, as the ice floes hardly formed at all.

But this also gave researchers their first opportunity to see how the penguins would behave when their usual breeding grounds were not available - with many suspecting that the penguins would simply not breed at all in those years.

Satellite images taken during those years, however, have been found to show emperor penguin breeding colonies perched on top of some of the continent's fresh-water ice shelves, often surrounded by thirty-metre-high cliff faces.

Emperor penguins are agile swimmers, but are usually thought of as quite clumsy animals on dry land, and so their ability to scale such ascents came as quite a surprise. But detailed examination of the satellites imaged showed that the penguins had worked out a long and winding path they could tread to reach the top of the shelf.

This adaptability gives hope that the emperor penguins may not be quite so vulnerable to population collapse as previously thought, should their prefered breeding grounds disappear in coming years.

The work is written up in online journal PLOS ONE.



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This just doesn't make any sense. 

The Emperor Penguin ranges around almost the entire Antarctic Continent during the SUMMER, then migrate northward for the winter.

The sea ice around Antarctica is highly variable with most of the sea ice disappearing in the summer, and reforming in the winter.  Over the last couple of decades the sea ice has generally been INCREASING around Antarctica.

According to the chart, the winter 2011 sea ice was slightly below average (when the Penguins were not around), but the summer sea ice for January 2011 & December 2011 was pretty close to average.  2012, on the other hand, was at or above average for most of the year.  The current summer extent (2013/2014) is much higher than average. 

Is this only looking at a small colony of penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula? 

It is good to hear that the birds can find a path to climb the ice shelves, but not particularly surprising as the summer sea ice around Antarctica is always extremely variable, and many videos I've seen show the Penguins following each other in lines and acting in groups.

We are only looking at a few decades snapshot of ice conditions in both the Arctic and Antarctic.  It is hard to believe a species could survive extreme shifts between glacial and interglacial periods, warm and cool periods, and fluctuations of sea levels of hundreds of meters without being at least a little bit adaptable. CliffordK, Sun, 19th Jan 2014

I thought the emperor penguins overwintered within the Antarctic continent, which would be more to the south?
I know everything is backwards in the Southern Hemisphere... evan_au, Mon, 20th Jan 2014

I thought the emperor penguins overwintered within the Antarctic continent, which would be more to the south?

I think I had migrations of different species of penguins confused.

But, we're both half right.
Apparently the males stay on the Antarctic Continent for the winter.

The females, on the other hand abandon their mates and head northward to warmer weather for the winter.  During the winter, the males are huddling together in bitter cold weather with nothing to eat.  The species is apparently well adapted to the long harsh winter conditions, although I wonder if there would be benefits of more leads and Polynyas occurring in the sea ice, perhaps allowing a shorter fasting period.

Much of the timing for the sea ice formation is based on the sun, and the very dark winters in Antarctica.  It will take major changes in the environment for all of the sea ice to go away. 

Apparently there is a relationship between Antarctic Krill, Algae, and Sea Ice.  If the sea ice was to significantly decrease, it could have a negative impact on the krill, and many species that depend on them.

Anyway, looking at the range map for the Emperor Penguins, I'd ask why it isn't uniform around Antarctica.  Green on the map is for mating areas, red is the range.  So, the question is what is so different about Wilkes Land that there are no emperor penguin colonies?  And perhaps the same for the Antarctic Peninsula.  Of course there are Adélie Penguins in the area.  Is there competition between species? CliffordK, Tue, 21st Jan 2014

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