Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) might be adapting to a warming planet, according to a new study.
Researchers from British Antarctic Survey looked at satellite data on the movements of four Antarctic emperor penguin colonies and found that these birds are shifting from their traditional breeding grounds to thicker ice-shelves.
An ice shelf is a large, floating block of ice that forms where a glacier meets a coastline. Generally, penguins breed on thin sea-ice, sometimes up to 18 kilometers or 11 miles offshore. The thin floating sea ice gives them easy access to water where they hunt for fish.
Now, rising temperature and low sea ice has forced emperor penguins to move to thicker ice shelves, especially now, when thin sea ice forms later than usual.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from ENVISAT synthetic aperture radar data and Quickbird satellite data to study the behavior of four penguin colonies living in warmer areas where the availability of sea ice is low.
"Satellite observations captured of one colony in 2008, 2009 and 2010 show that the concentration of annual sea ice was dense enough to sustain a colony," Peter Fretwell of BAS, lead author of the study, said in a news release.
"But this was not the case in 2011 and 2012 when the sea ice did not form until a month after the breeding season began. During those years the birds moved up onto the neighbouring floating ice shelf to raise their young,"
The species is currently classified as 'near threatened' by the IUCN red list due to rising concerns about the penguins' ability to adapt to a warmer earth. The present study shows that the birds might be capable of altering their behavior during breeding seasons.
Happy Feet 2
The emperor penguins are very good swimmers, but are quite clumsy on land, which is why scientists were amazed with the birds' ability to climb over the ice shelves. The height of the ice shelf at the site that the scientists studied was about 30 meters or nearly 100 feet.
The amazing march of the birds resembles the scene in the movie Happy Feet 2, where the entire colony is trapped within walls of ice.
At some places on the ice shelves, huge icy cliffs can form, which can be as high as 60 meters.
Scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in California also worked on the current research. The study is published in the journal PLOS One.
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