Researchers from Australia's University of New South Wales recently reported that the "death" of 150,000 Adélie penguins in Antarctica was the result of a giant iceberg that grounded near their colony, cutting off their sea access and leaving them to starve.
But no proof has been found indicating the birds are in fact dead. Some critics are challenging the New South Wales study published in Antarctic Science. Instead, they suggest the penguins may have just picked up and moved to happier hunting grounds.
The iceberg, named B09B, measured some 38.6 square miles wide. It grounded in Commonwealth Bay in East Antarctica in December 2010. The Adélie penguin population in the bay was estimated to be about 160,000 in February 2011, but by December 2013 it had plunged to an estimated 10,000. Unless the ice melts or the block is dislodged, researchers estimate the population will go extinct within the next 20 years.
The iceberg's grounding meant the penguins had to walk more than 37 miles to find food. However, rather than starving to death, some researchers now claim the penguins simply solved the problem by finding a new home.
This wouldn't be the first time Adélie penguins migrated: When an iceberg grounded in the southern Ross Sea in 2001, penguins on Ross Island relocated to nearby colonies until the ice broke up.
"Just because there are a lot fewer birds observed doesn't automatically mean the ones that were there before have perished," Michelle LaRue, a penguin population researcher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement. "They easily could have moved elsewhere, which would make sense if nearby colonies are thriving."
Having seen Commonwealth Bay littered with dead chicks and discarded eggs, researchers assumed the worse, but LaRue counters that Adélie penguin colonies always have dead birds scattered around because the carcasses don't decompose in Antarctica's dry, cold climate.
"I do not know what happened to these birds, but no one does for certain," LaRue concluded. "The fact that so many birds gone from this location is really interesting."
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