It Was Another Tough Year for Emperor Penguin Chicks

20% of colonies experienced breeding failures tied to record low sea ice: study
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 26, 2024 10:55 AM CDT
It Was Another Tough Year for Emperor Penguin Chicks
Emperor penguin chicks stand together in Antarctica on Dec. 21, 2005.   (Zhang Zongtang/Xinhua via AP, File)

Low sea ice is wreaking havoc on emperor penguins year after year, likely resulting in the total wipeout of chicks in some colonies. Nearly a third of emperor penguin colonies experienced early sea-ice loss in 2022, resulting in catastrophic breeding failures. Though marked by an even lower sea ice extent than in 2022, last year saw fewer sea ice break-up events and the penguins fared better, but only slightly, per Reuters. A fifth of colonies (14 of 66) experienced early sea-ice loss, resulting in "high if not total levels of mortality," British Antarctic Survey scientist Peter Fretwell, author of a study published Thursday in Antarctic Science, tells AFP. Tens of thousands of chicks are likely to have died.

Fretwell warns that with "multiple bad years, it is going to start to drive the population down over time." Emperor penguins breed on platforms of sea ice. In a single colony, hundreds or thousands of chicks spend roughly six months on the ice, typically from late July to the height of Antarctica's summer in December, developing their waterproof feathers. If the ice melts before those feathers develop, the chicks are likely to drown or freeze. Several colonies affected by early ice melt in 2022 went in search of new breeding areas in 2023, landing on more stable icebergs and ice shelves, which shows they're adapting, according to the study.

Indeed, British cinematographer Bertie Gregory captured video of chicks leaping off a 50-foot ice cliff for their first swimming lesson in January in what USA Today reports is a "never-before-filmed" behavior. "I've only ever seen emperors jumping off the sea ice. And that's a couple of feet maximum," Gregory says in the footage. But such ice shelves offer only a "temporary solution," says Fretwell. Sea ice in the Antarctic fell below 770,000 square miles to about 70% of the 1981-2010 average in both 2022 and 2023. The ice will continue disappearing if greenhouse gas emissions remain stable, he warns, and emperor penguins will vanish, too. (More emperor penguins stories.)

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