January 20th marks an important day in highlighting the issues facing some of the natural world’s most charismatic creatures. It’s safe to say that penguins are adored by both young and old across the globe. These dopey and clumsy, adorable birds are featured in countless documentaries and are arguably the most recognised icon of Antarctica. There are roughly 17 species of penguin. From the more widely recognised Emperor Penguin of Antarctica to the lesser known Fiordland Penguin of New Zealand and Magellanic Penguin of South America, all of them are under threat.
It comes as no surprise that penguins, not unlike vast numbers of other animals, are under threat. Just today an article on The Guardian website has stated that the Adélie penguin is considered the fourth most at risk species from extinction on the planet. Rapid increases in sea temperatures and incredible declines in sea ice are just two of the causes for a predicted 80% decrease in Adélie colonies in the West Antarctic Peninsula. Population changes due to anthropogenic forces such as these are previously unprecedented, but there are changes we can make on an individual basis to alter the future of this group of birds. And we are changing. Despite being adapted to living in extreme environments, penguins like most species, are highly sensitive to climate change.
Perhaps the most commonly recognised penguin is the Emperor Penguin. Being the largest living species of this flightless bird, it is often the most documented, and sadly, the most widely kept in captive environments. It is without a doubt that the largest threat posed to penguins of all species is climate change, particularly within the cold environments surrounding the Southern Ocean. Extreme melting of sea ice leads to less habitat being available for the penguins. In the south-west Atlantic, populations of Adélie and Emperor penguins have shifted poleward, whilst the ice-intolerant Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins have increased their geographical range southward. Additionally, the polar sea ice is a critical breeding ground for the penguin’s principle sources of food, such as krill, and indirectly zooplankton and phytoplankton which form the basis of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean food web. Fluctuating weather patterns exacerbated by climate change, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, will also cause alterations in marine ecosystems, ultimately affecting penguin populations. As penguins have a long life span, they are unlikely to be able to adapt to their new ecological niche due to slow microevolution, meaning they require phenotypic plasticity in order to survive their changing environment.
Arguably more directly, although perhaps less frequent, oil spills are devastating to almost all species within the oceanic environment when they occur. We often overlook penguin species that do not reside in the polar environment of Antarctic, such as the Galapagos Penguin and the African Penguin, but these are more at risk from oil spills due to trade routes operating in the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, in 2011 more than 800 tonnes of fuel leaked from a Maltese ship into the Southern Atlantic threatening half of the world’s northern Rockhopper Penguins. Penguins coated in oil are unable to control their body temperature and cannot forage for food, leading to starvation due to their inability to float in water caused by the oil. Many birds will try to clean themselves of the oil as well, which results in the ingestion of oil causing numerous infections and ulcers leading to their death. Although it is difficult to volunteer at an oil spill site when it’s happening on the other side of the globe to you, if one should ever, devastatingly occur, within driving distance of your home please consider volunteering. It takes thousands of people to clear up the environmental disaster created by tonnes of oil flooding into the ocean. Two people are required to clean up each bird, each taking up to an hour. As you can probably imagine, this may seem like an endless task, so every little effort really does help.
Overfishing is a widely-known threat to oceanic ecosystems and food webs and indirectly affects penguins across the planet. It is one of the primary threats caused by humans to global penguin populations, whilst also being something we can all actively mitigate in our individual lives. In recent years there has been a trend towards the consumption of krill oil as a health supplement. I cannot stress enough how important it is to not buy into this industry. Krill, aside from zooplankton and phytoplankton, make up the basis of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean food webs. Almost all of the species residing within these ecosystems depend on krill for their survival, whether indirectly or directly, including penguins. Unsustainable catching of krill, alongside larger species such as sardines and herring, are fuelling the population decrease of penguins as parents are spending a longer time at sea searching for food for their chicks, ultimately leading to their chick’s death. Out of all the steps you can undertake to help future population’s of penguins, this is probably the simplest. Actively look for Marine Conservation Society certified sustainable fish when shopping. It really is that simple. Most of the major supermarkets sell fish from these sustainable stocks, so this one really isn’t that hard to implement into your life.
Climate change, oil spills and overfishing are the primary causes for declines in global penguin populations. That said, there are a number of other causessuch as illegal egg collections, fishing bycatch and marine pollution that all contribute to their decline. It is obvious that several of these causes are interconnected, and by mitigating the effects of one, it is perhaps easy to reduce the effects of others. If one thing is for certain, everyone can play their part in the survival of this group of loveable, flightless birds.
Fundamentally, I believe it is arguable that to a certain degree it is not fair to condemn hundreds of thousands of species to an extinction, whether that is indirectly or directly caused by anthropogenic forces. Of course, I am biased entirely. I study biological sciences and I have been fascinated with conserving the natural world ever since my first fundraiser in primary school, but if we cannot safeguard a keystone group like penguins, then what hope does everything else have?
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