Emperor penguins adapting to climate change: study
Emperor penguins may be adapting to climate change better than expected, according to a new study which offers new insights on the long-term future of the species
The study led by the University of Minnesota used satellite images to show that emperor penguins are more willing to relocate than previously thought.
It also shows that the penguins may be behaving in ways that allow them to adapt to their changing environment better than expected.
Researchers have long thought that emperor penguins were philopatric, which means they would return to the same location to nest each year.
The new study found six instances in just three years in which emperor penguins did not return to the same location to breed.
Researchers also report on one newly discovered colony on the Antarctic Peninsula that may represent the relocation of penguins.
“Our research showing that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins,” said study’s lead author Michelle LaRue.
“If we assume that these birds come back to the same locations every year, without fail, these new colonies we see on satellite images wouldn’t make any sense. These birds didn’t just appear out of thin air – they had to have come from somewhere else. This suggests that emperor penguins move among colonies. That means we need to revisit how we interpret population changes and the causes of those changes,” said LaRue.
The ‘March of the Penguins’ colony is called Pointe Geologie and it’s been studied for more than 60 years.
Researchers observe the colony every year and look, in particular, for birds that have been banded by researchers to return to the colony.
In recent decades researchers have been concerned about how receding sea ice may affect the emperor penguins that breed on it.
Over five years in the late 1970s, the Southern Ocean warmed and at the same time the penguin colony at Pointe Geologie, declined by half (6,000 breeding pairs to 3,000 breeding pairs).
The decline was thought to be due to decreased survival rates. In other words, researchers thought that the warming temperatures were negatively impacting the survival of the species.
The satellite images show that Pointe Geologie is not isolated at all. Plenty of colonies are within easy travel distance for an emperor penguin.
“It’s possible that birds have moved away from Pointe Geologie to these other spots and that means that maybe those banded birds didn’t die,” LaRue said.
The study will be published in the journal Ecography.