Penguins May Not Be Dying Off, Just Moving
Scientists have been growing increasingly concerned about penguins, worried that melting ice sheets and warming temperatures were leaving the flightless birds with no place to go. However, according to a recent study, penguins may actually be more willing to adapt to a changing environment than previously thought.
According to researchers for the University of Minnesota (UM), it has long been thought that as their habits continue to shrink, Antarctic penguin colonies will stubbornly stay put, losing less and less means to survive each year until they eventually disappear with the melting ice.
However, new research headed by UM's Michelle LaRue and presented at the IDEACITY conference in Toronto on Friday, indicates that penguins may be smarter than they look, retreating to better locations or joining other colonies once their homes become too inhabitable.
Satellite footage of Pointe Géologie and the surrounding arctic regions - the setting of the world-famous documentary "March of the Penguins" - has revealed evidence of Emperor penguin colonies settling in one spot one year, and then being completely gone the next.
"Our research showing that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins," LaRue said in a statement.
According to the researchers, since the Southern Ocean first began to warm in the late 1970s, penguin populations around Pointe Géologie have declined by more than half, with initial colonies slowly disappearing. This worried experts, who thought the animals were philopatric - returning to the same location to nest each year.
But LaRue's analysis of satellite footage has revealed the new penguin colonies have sprung up all around the Antarctic peninsula.
"These birds didn't just appear out of thin air," LaRue said. "They had to have come from somewhere else. This suggests that emperor penguins move among colonies."
LaRue and her team theorize that the 1970s colony may not have simply died off. Instead, they could have broken off into other colonies to find new habitable parts of the Arctic, adapting to the changing region.
"If we want to accurately conserve the species, we really need to know the basics. We've just learned something unexpected, and we should rethink how we interpret colony fluctuations," the author concluded.
The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Ecography, and until that time should be viewed as preliminary findings.