New report documents dramatic Antarctic penguin population loss

Hundreds of Adélie Penguins gather on Ross Island in Antarctica. Photo by David Grémillet

(Birdwatching Daily; 28 April 2017; Photo David Grémillet)

The inaugural “State of Antarctic Penguins” (SOAP) report, released on World Penguin Day (April 25) by international science-based NGO Oceanites, reveals that at least two species of Antarctic penguin — Adélie and Chinstrap — have suffered dramatic declines in population due to warming on the Antarctic peninsula. The SOAP report also identifies important trends about the keystone Antarctic penguin species — Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, and Gentoo — noting future concerns about these populations. Up-to-date data from more than 660 sites across the entire Antarctic continent has been aggregated and summarized for the report, including 3,176 records from 101 sources of on-the-ground colony counts and satellite photo analyses. The results are both significant and alarming, according to Oceanites founder and president Ron Naveen.

“In one generation, I have personally witnessed the precipitous decline of once abundant Adélie and Chinstrap Penguin populations,” said Naveen. “These iconic birds are literally canaries in the coal mine. They provide critical insights into the dramatic changes taking place in the Antarctic. What’s happening to penguin populations can have important implications for all of us.”

Critical scientific expertise for the SOAP report was provided by the Lynch Lab for Quantitative Ecology at Stony Brook University, who partnered with NASA to develop the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics (MAPPPD), a unique open-ended scientific support tool intended to provide “one-stop shopping” for scientists studying penguin populations in the Antarctic.

Heather Lynch, associate professor and director of the Lynch Lab, states, “We can now use advanced satellite technology and data analyses to better understand how these penguin populations are changing. By integrating expert biological field surveys, satellite imagery analyses, and citizen science, we can further enhance our ability to understand the changes taking place in an incredibly important world we are just learning about.”

The SOAP report presents findings both continent-wide and per key Antarctic fishing areas designated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

Key report findings:

Over the past 60-plus years in the vastly warmed Antarctic Peninsula, Gentoo populations have increased significantly; Adélie Penguin populations have, in general, declined significantly; and Chinstrap Penguin populations have declined — at some locations significantly.

By contrast, in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea, regions that have not experienced a warming trend, Adélie Penguin populations appear to be increasing.

The SOAP 2017 report notes various concerns, all related to climate, potentially affecting these penguin populations — including the potential for ice sheet collapse both in West and East Antarctica.

Key implications:

In the vastly warmed Antarctic Peninsula, there are “winners” (rising numbers of Gentoos) and “losers” (decreasing numbers of Adélies and Chinstraps), foreboding concerns on whether humans will be able to adapt to warming trends.

Limiting warming to no more than 2°C / 3.6° F has become the de facto target for global climate policy; yet the Antarctic Peninsula already has warmed by more than that over the last 60 years — by 3°C / 5°F year-round and by 5°C / 9°F in the austral winter.

Ongoing studies are underway to ascertain whether penguins can maintain “the four vitals” necessary for adaptation and survival: food, habitat, health (disease-free environment), and reproduction (future generations).

Two species are in decline in the Antarctic Peninsula and another is adapting. Food might be an explanation; all the penguins can eat both krill and fish, but Gentoos, at this point in time, appear to have adapted better to reduced krill availability by eating more fish.

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