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Emperor Penguins Marching Towards Extinction Due to Climate Change

Jun 30, 2014 12:52 PM EDT

Contrary to what other recent reports have said, a new study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) says that emperor penguins are in danger of dramatic declines by the end of the century, and marching towards extinction due to climate change.

According to the authors, these iconic animals are "fully deserving of endangered status due to climate change," and are currently under consideration for inclusion under the US Endangered Species Act.

Sea ice is vital to emperor penguin survival, and if climate change continues to warm the planet and melt their precious Antarctic wonderland, then most penguin colonies will decline by more than 50 percent at the end of the century, the study explains in the journal Nature Climate Change.

"None of the colonies, even the southern-most locations in the Ross Sea, will provide a viable refuge by the end of 21st century," added WHOI biologist and lead author Stephanie Jenouvrier in a news release.

The researchers' analysis of the global, continent-wide Emperor penguin population includes current and future estimates of sea ice concentration declines. Also, this 50-year study involved observing the mating, foraging, and chick-rearing patterns of the Emperor penguin colony in Terre Adélie, in eastern Antarctica, every year.

"Long-term studies like this are invaluable for measuring the response of survival and breeding to changes in sea ice. They provide our understanding of the role sea ice plays in the emperor penguin's life cycle," explained WHOI scientist Hal Caswell.

Though, the role of sea ice is a bit more complicated than you might think. There is such a thing as too much ice for these penguins. An abundance of sea ice means penguin parents have to travel too far to the ocean to hunt, also making a long trip home bringing back food to their chicks. And too little ice reduces the habitat for krill, a critical food source for penguins.

Though this study says that by the end of the century at least two-thirds of them will have declined by more than half, a recent study by the University of Minnesota insists that penguins may actually be more willing to adapt to a changing environment.

These researchers believe penguins are starting to move their colonies, not necessarily nesting in the same location each year.

Despite contradictory reports, the WHOI team is adamant that putting emperor penguins on the endangered species list is an important step towards combating declining populations as a result of climate change in the present and future.

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