Scientists have warned emperor penguins are in serious trouble with 10,000 chicks killed in 2022
With their bold colours, striking size and entertaining waddle, the Emperor penguin – the largest of all penguins – is the quintessential movie star penguin, having appeared in numerous films from March of the Penguins to Happy Feet. But despite its fame, this Hollywood starlet is in serious danger.
Emperor penguins, which live only in Antarctica, are seriously tough creatures. They are the only animals to breed on mainland Antarctica during the bitter winter cold. Females lay a single egg before disappearing back to the ocean to feed for the winter, while the males, in a neat reversal of roles, huddle up together in huge colonies on the sea ice and guard the egg through the coldest months of the year.
Tough they might be, but no emperor is invincible. As Antarctica heats up, so the crucial sea ice is melting faster and further. And this is bad news for the penguins nesting on the sea ice, because the down feathers on the chicks are not waterproof and so if the ice melts under them then the chicks simply drown or freeze. The situation is so bad that scientists have warned that 90 per cent of emperor penguin breeding colonies could be wiped out by the end of this century.
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As if to emphasise this point, scientists studying satellite imagery have discovered that in late 2022 up to 10,000 baby emperor penguins were killed when the sea ice melted before the youngsters had fledged. The brooding and nesting period for emperor penguins runs from August through to late November and the chicks fledge between December and January. But in 2022, the ice around west Antarctica’s Bellingshausen Sea had almost totally melted beneath the penguins’ feet by late November. Of the five colonies in this area, only one, located on Rothschild Island, had any success, with the other four colonies being totally destroyed.
And this is not the first time such a disaster has befallen the emperors. In the late 1970s, a population decline of 50 per cent was recorded in the Terre Adélie region after an abnormally long warm period. In 2009, the Dion Islands colony vanished without trace. Then, during the warm 2015 El Niño period, the Halley Bay colony recorded an almost total breeding failure for three years in a row due to reduced sea ice.
The extent of the summer ice around Antarctica has been in decline since 2016, with the lowest recorded years being the last two. To make matters worse, the winter ice is forming later and slower than before, which means less ice is available when the penguins begin nesting. Recent studies have shown that between 2018 and 2022 around a third of the sixty known emperor penguin colonies had been negatively impacted by diminished sea ice.
So, it seems that the emperor might not have happy feet for much longer.