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Rare penguin and Climate Change: Cold Current Surprise

Aug 03, 2015 01:50 PM EDT
Galápagos penguins are the only Northern Hemisphere penguins.
Rather than living in ice and snow like other penguins, the members of this still-endangered species feed and breed in cold water off two islands, Isabela and Fernandina. A recent study shows that climate change may actually improve their environment in unexpected ways.
(Photo : Flickr: Aaron Logan)

In the fairly rare field of penguins that live on harsh, tropical-desert islands, there's new hope for Galápagos penguins in these warming times, says Kristopher Karnauskas, a climate researcher from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in his recently published research in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The penguins, it seems, have benefited from shifts in trade winds and ocean currents over the past 30 years. A cold pool of water grew larger, becoming an even more reliable spot for penguin food-finding and breeding. This could continue as the climate changes over upcoming decades, a release noted.

As these are the only penguins in the Northern Hemisphere, that's good news. These flightless birds, about 19 inches tall, make their home on the Galápagos, this chain of islands 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador. They have been on the endangered species list since 2000--when their population arrived at a few hundred individuals, the release noted.

Despite living in an arid, warm place, the penguins make their lives mostly in a cold pool of water on the southwestern coasts of two islands, Isabela and Fernandina. The pool is fed by the Equatorial Undercurrent, an ocean current that flows from the west toward the islands, according to the release.

Here's where the change comes in. Over the past three decades, wind currents have eased the Equatorial Undercurrent north. This may have to do with climate change and natural variability. The alteration boosted the nutrient-rich water, probably increasing algae and fish numbers in the pool. By 2014, penguin numbers had more than doubled over 30 years, reaching more than 1,000 birds, the release says.

Climate change could increase this effect, driving fish populations higher. In fact, fur seals and marine iguanas that also feed from the cold pool could benefit, too, according to the release.

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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