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Emperor Penguins Might be Adapting to Climate Change: Study

Jun 21, 2014 06:10 AM EDT
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Emperor penguin

(Photo : REUTERS/Martin Passingham )

Emperor penguins adapting to climate change better than expected, a new study suggests.

University of Minnesota researchers and colleagues have found that penguins are behaving in ways that could help them adapt to a warmer Earth.

Previous research had assumed that emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri)  were faithful to the nesting grounds or were philopatric. Satellite images now show that these penguins aren't returning to the same location to breed.

The study team found six instances of penguins changing breeding grounds in a span of three years.

Michelle LaRue presented the study findings at the IDEACITY conference in Toronto. The study will be published in the journal Ecography.

"Our research showing that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins," said LaRue in a news release. "If we assume that these birds come back to the same locations every year, without fail, these new colonies we see on satellite images wouldn't make any sense. These birds didn't just appear out of thin air-they had to have come from somewhere else. This suggests that emperor penguins move among colonies. That means we need to revisit how we interpret population changes and the causes of those changes."

This isn't the first study that has explored the changes in penguin behavior. A related research by British Antarctic Survey scientists and colleagues had shown that these birds were abandoning their traditional breeding grounds for stable ice shelves. In fact, penguins are now climbing steep ice shelf walls, some 30 meters or nearly 100 feet high, to find a good breeding spot.

The penguin colony featured in the documentary March of the Penguins is called Pointe Géologie and has been studied for more than six decades. Conservationists believe that loss of sea ice could reduce the number of penguins in the colonies.

In fact, Pointe Géologie population has declined by half since 1970s from 6,000 breeding pairs to 3,000 breeding pairs now.

Earlier, researchers had believed that Pointe Géologie was isolated and penguins never moved to other breeding grounds. New images of the colony show that there are several other breeding sites that the colony isn't as isolated as assumed.

"It's possible that birds have moved away from Pointe Géologie to these other spots and that means that maybe those banded birds didn't die," LaRue said in a news release. "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."                 

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