Climate: Too cold for penguins?

Emperor penguin colony near Halley Bay. IMAGE COURTESY DIGITALGLOBE.

Emperor penguin colony near Halley Bay. IMAGE COURTESY DIGITALGLOBE.

Genetic study tracks history of Antarctica’s emperor penguin populations

Staff Report

FRISCO — A genetic study shows that emperor penguins may have just barely survived the last ice age, with a few scattered populations  enduring centuries of bitter cold and ice.

The study covers about 30,000 years and suggests that only three populations survived, including a climate refuge of sorts in the Ross Sea, where emperors may have been able to breed around a relatively small area of open water. The emperor penguins in that region evolved to become genetically distinct from other populations, which may support arguments for creating a Ross Sea marine protected area. Continue reading

Climate: Are emperor penguins doomed?


Emperor penguins in Antarctica. Photo courtesy BAS.

New study projects 50 percent decline by century’s end as sea ice habitat dwindles

Staff Report

FRISCO — Antarctica’s emperor penguins may be colonizing new territory right now, but the long-term outlook for the birds is grim, according to new research showing that changes in sea ice concentration will likely cause most colonies to decline by 50 percent by the end of the century.

Even the most remote reaches of Antarctica won’t be immune to the changes, the study leaders said, describing the results of their findings in a new article in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The study concludes that emperor penguins are fully deserving of an endangered species listing based on global warming threats. The research will help inform federal bio-crats as they ponder a listing under the Endangered Species Act. Continue reading

Environment: Are Antarctica’s emperor penguins going mobile in response to global warming?

Emporer penguins and chicks near the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica.

Emporer penguins and chicks near the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Photo courtesy BAS.

Penguin populations in flux

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Just six months after scientists documented breeding emperor penguins moving from sea ice to ice-shelf habitat, a new study reinforces the idea that Antarctica’s iconic birds may be more mobile than thought. It’s too early to say for sure, but that could be good news in terms in terms of global warming, which is likely to change the face of the frozen continent in the decades ahead.

The fundamental questions hinge on how dependent the birds are on their icy habitat. Some studies have shown that emperor penguins may suffer as sea ice shrinks, while other researchers recently doubled their estimate for total population numbers. Overall, penguin populations around Antarctica are in a state of flux. Read all our emperor penguin stories here. Continue reading

Can emperor penguins adapt to global warming?

Emperor penguin colonies show up as dark splotches against the white ice near Halley Bay. PHOTO COURTESY DIGITALGLOBE.

Emperor penguin colonies show up as dark splotches against the white ice near Halley Bay. PHOTO COURTESY DIGITALGLOBE.

Recent satellite observations show birds adapting to changes in sea ice

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Emperor penguins living at the edge of their range may be able to find new breeding grounds as their sea-ice breeding habitat dwindles in coming decades.

Recent satellite monitoring shows that the Antarctic birds moved from their traditional sea-ice breeding grounds during years when the thin layer of ice (sea ice) formed later than usual to the much thicker floating ice shelves that surround the continent.

“When they turn up to breed, there needs to be a solid blanket of sea ice,” said British Antarctic Survey researcher Peter Frewell, lead author of the paper published this week in the online journal, PLOS ONE. The research team also included scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in California. Continue reading

New study tracks emperor penguin sea ice habits

Sea ice critical for rests during long foraging treks

These are emperor penguins near the sea.
Credit: Photo credit: Katsufumi Sato (Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, The University of Tokyo)

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Climate-related shifts in ice around Antarctica have already been implicated in the disappearance of at least emperor penguin colony, but researchers have not been sure exactly how sea ice figures in to their life cycle.

In a new study, researchers show how the birds use sea ice to rest during long foraging periods. The life cycle of the emperor penguins takes place in an exquisite balance with the rhythms of ice formation. Courtship, egg laying and incubation occur during winter, followed by hatching, brooding and crèche formation during spring and early summer. Both parents tend the chicks until they fledge, generally in late spring and early summer (November and December), when the ice breaks up into floes that drift with the wind and currents.

Unlike other species, like Adelie penguins, emperor penguins spent much more time diving for food, and only used about 30 percent of their time at sea to take short breaks to rest on sea ice. The birds did not travel for long distances on the ice, or use it for other activities. The study also suggests that these short rest periods on sea ice may help the penguins avoid predators such as leopard seals. Continue reading

Study: Weddell seal reproduction dropped to unprecedented low during unusual Ross Sea ice events

A Weddell seal at a breathing hole. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Overall population remained stable, but emperor penguins the region hit hard by thin sea ice and shifting icebergs

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Dramatic changes in Antarctic sea ice extent and thickness had different impacts on species that breed along the edge of the Ross Sea, with Weddell seals weathering the changes well, while emperor penguins suffered population losses.

A team of Montana State University ecologists who recently published their findings from last year’s observations are headed back to Antarctica to continue their Weddell seal research as part of an important long-term effort to monitor ecological changes in the region. Continue reading

Biologists document loss of emperor penguin colony

Climate change seen as likely factor

Emporer penguins and chicks near the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica. PHOTO COURTESY THE BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY.

Loss of sea ice may be driving the decline of some penguin populations. PHOTO: BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — British scientists in Antarctica have documented the disappearance of an emperor penguin colony from an island near the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The area has warmed significantly in recent decades and the researchers said a decrease in seasonal sea ice duration may be a key factor in the loss of the colony on Emperor Island.

The changes in sea ice duration are driven by regional climate change around the Antarctic Peninsula, where air and sea temperatures have warmed significantly in recent decades. Taken all together, the signs are compelling that the disappearance of the emperor penguin colony can be traced to climate change impacts, said Dr. Phillip Trathan, head of the British Antarctic Survey’s conservation biology program.

“We looked at alternative hypotheses of why the colony may have disappeared but found little evidence to support these other suggestions,” Trathan said.

In the bigger picture, researchers have also been documenting shifts and losses in populations of other ice-dependent penguin species like Adelies, while other species — like Gentoos — that don’t need ice have expanded their range, Trathan said. Continue reading


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