Emperor Penguin is at serious risk of extinction due to climate change

May 6 (Reuters) – Emperor penguins, which roam the frozen tundra and cold seas of Antarctica, are at severe risk of extinction in the next 30 to 40 years as a result of climate change, an expert from the Argentine Antarctic Institute (IAA) warned.

The emperor, the world’s largest penguin and one of only two penguin species endemic to Antarctica, gives birth during the Antarctic winter and requires solid sea ice from April to December to nest young chicks.

If the sea freezes later or thaws prematurely, the imperial family cannot complete its reproductive cycle.

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“If water reaches newborn penguins, which are not ready to swim and don’t have waterproof feathers, they freeze to death and drown,” said biologist Marcela Libertelli, who has studied 15,000 penguins in two colonies in Antarctica at the IAA.

This has happened in the Halley Bay colony on the Weddell Sea, the second largest emperor penguin colony, where for three years all the chicks died.

Every August, in the middle of southern hemisphere winter, Libertelli and other scientists at Argentina’s Marambio Base in Antarctica make a daily 65 km (40 miles) journey by motorbike in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius (-40°F) to reach the nearest emperor penguin colony.

Once there, they counted, weighed, and measured the chicks, gathered geographic coordinates, and took blood samples. They also do air analysis.

The scientists’ findings point to a bleak future for the species if climate change is not mitigated.

Emperor penguins are seen in Dumont d’Urville, Antarctica April 10, 2012. Image taken April 10, 2012. REUTERS/Martin Passingham

“[Climate] projections show that colonies located between latitudes 60 and 70 degrees [south] will disappear in the next few decades; that is, in the next 30, 40 years,” Libertelli told Reuters.

The emperor’s unique features include the longest reproductive cycle among penguins. After a chick is born, one of the mothers continues to hold it between its legs for warmth until its last feathers develop.

“The loss of any species is a tragedy for the planet,” Libertelli said. “Whether small or large, plant or animal – it doesn’t matter. This is a loss for biodiversity.”

The loss of the emperor penguin could have a dramatic impact across Antarctica, an extreme environment where the food chain has fewer members and fewer links, Libertelli said.

In early April, the World Meteorological Organization warned of “increasingly extreme temperatures coupled with unusual rainfall and ice melting in Antarctica” – “a worrying trend,” Libertelli said, as the Antarctic ice sheet has been thinning since at least 1999.

The rise of tourism and fishing in Antarctica is also jeopardizing the future of the emperor by affecting krill, one of the main food sources for penguins and other species.

“Sightseeing boats often have a variety of negative effects on Antarctica, as does fishing,” Libertelli said.

“It’s important that there is more control and we think about the future.”

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Reporting by Lucila Sigal; written by Isabel Woodford and Brendan O’Boyle; edited by Nicolás Misculin and Richard Pullin

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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