Penguins Threatened By Climate Change Face Extinction Without Our Help
We all know and love penguins; from their comical walk to their fluffy chicks. But with today, January 20, marking National Penguin Awareness Day, we have to ask ourselves if we’re doing enough to battle the threats penguins are facing.
It’s not new information that sea ice in the Antarctic is decreasing at concerning rates; just last February the continent saw its temperatures rising above 20 degrees for the first time in history. This type of news is often followed with how this will affect us as humans – but what about the penguins that live there?
Dr. Michelle LaRue, an ecologist and science communicator at the University of Minnesota, has studied penguins for many years. She uses high resolution satellite images to see where the birds live in the Antarctic, how many there are, and uses the information to work out why they’re situated there and how they relate to each other within their local or regional communities.
Dr. LaRue focuses on two types of penguins in her research: Adélie penguins, and emperor penguins.
Discussing the threats they are facing, she explained to UNILAD, ‘In general, there are a lot of things in common that threaten all penguin species such as overfishing and climate change. Those are probably the two primary things I think of in terms of threats to penguins.’
Describing climate change as the biggest threat to emperor penguins, Dr. LaRue continued:
The reason for climate change being their biggest threat is their sea ice habitat – they have to be on sea ice to raise their chicks. They need that sea ice to then be stable for at least nine months of the year.
The concern is that climate change won’t allow them to have sea ice for long enough to complete the fledging process of the chicks.
In October 2019, it was reported that a 315 billion tonne iceberg had broken off Antarctica that measured about 1,636 square kilometres.
As it stands, 10 of the 18 penguin species are listed on the IUCN Red List threat category.
As emperor penguins need sea ice to survive, it’s much more difficult for them to relocate compared to other species of penguin, as they’re already as far south as they can go.
Dr. LaRue explained, ‘They may be able to move around a little bit, but they still need that sea ice for nine months to be able to raise their chicks. But if it gets to the point where there’s no sea ice left – there probably won’t be any emperor penguins. They literally can’t go any further south, they’re already on the sea ice next to the Antarctic continent.’
Another potential threat to penguins is tourism, according to Professor Robert Young, chair in Wildlife Conservation at the University of Salford.
He explained to UNILAD, ‘There’s a lot of tourism around penguins where 100 people are allowed off on an island or wherever the penguins are and they’re not guided. They’re told not to come within 5 metres of the birds but there’s nobody there making sure they’re not doing what they shouldn’t.’
Professor Young continued:
But, what we don’t really know is if tourism has a negative impact because, with penguins having to ground predators, it means that they don’t show a behavioural response to humans. However, they might be having a physiological response such as their heart rate going up.
They could be stressed, but they’re just not showing it. […] This could have a chronic effect on the penguins over a long period of time such as reducing the number of chicks being born.
With these threats in mind, Professor Young homed in on the importance of the conservation of animals like penguins in zoos.
He explained, ‘Having captured, bred populations as insurance populations for the future is very important. These aren’t necessarily populations to be released back into the wild anytime soon, but they’re insurance populations that you hope that you never, ever need to use. Because humans are having a massive negative impact on species like penguins, we have a moral responsibility to ensure they don’t go extinct, and one of the ways we can do that is through captive breeding.’
Luke Forster, head of birds, reptiles and small mammals at Blackpool Zoo, also thinks conservation in zoos is important, especially in terms of educating the public.
He said to UNILAD:
The 19 penguins we have here at the zoo are Magellanic penguins and we’re very lucky to be the only ones in the UK with that species. The main contribution that those birds make to conservation is to raise awareness with members of the public.
Usually, when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, we do two public feeds a day where we talk about the threats facing them in the wild, what people can do themselves to help, for example reducing the use of plastic.
Professor Young added, ‘Penguins in zoos are actually quite critical to this education mission as well as the actual conservation of them as their popularity raises awareness about the threats they, and other birds, are facing.’
People are often misguided when it comes to penguins’ vulnerability as they’re usually seen in large colonies in the wild made up of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of them. But despite these large numbers, Professor Young said that people don’t understand how quickly a large colony can be eliminated.
He explained, ‘The thing about penguins is that, when they’re shown, they’re shown in large groups, so that gives a lot of misunderstanding surrounding their numbers as people presume that they’re doing OK. While they’re right about there being a lot of penguins, people don’t understand how quickly large numbers of animals can go extinct and so they have a misguided understanding.’
But what exactly can we do to help our waddling friends around the world, particularly in Antarctica?
Dr. LaRue said, ‘It seems to be at this point, in my personal opinion, that writing to politicians and decision makers to try our best to adhere to the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s really going to make a difference, particularly for Emperor penguins.’
Unsure what the Paris Climate Agreement is? Check out this video:
Dr. LeRue continued, ‘If we don’t hit the agreement, we’re going to lose upwards of 80% of Emperor penguins colonies. If we can, the losses will be very, very minimised. We’ll probably still lose a few locations and some birds, but they’ll be able to hold on.’
Meanwhile, Luke Forster added:
We don’t need everyone to be a perfect member of society; we don’t need everybody to be vegan or wear clothes from recycled wool, we just need everybody to make more of an effort to do the little things because they will all add up to make a huge difference.
He further explained, ‘Some of the main things we can do is look at our carbon footprint. Don’t put your heating on as soon as you walk in the house – that’s one of our biggest energy expenses in the UK. Or, if you leave a room, turn the light off, try your best to buy loose fruit and veg at the shop, and to reduce your wastage.’
There are other ways you can help stop global warming which will, as a result, help the penguins as well – you can find out more here.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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