Climate Change and the Adélie Penguin

Recent research has highlighted that climate change is posing a severe threat towards yet another Antarctic species – this time the Adélie Penguin. The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, estimates that roughly 20% of the Adélie population could decline by 2060. Already, Adélie populations have declined in colonies throughout Antarctica, the most profound decreases seen in the South Shetland Islands, The South Orkney Islands and in the Antarctic Peninsula

The Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) is one of the seven species of penguins found in the Antarctic region, and is one of the smallest. According to the British Antarctic Survey, populations of Adélie Penguins are seen all over the Antarctic continent, however they tend to group inland and on rock slopes when not in breeding season.

Climate change impacts greatly on Antarctic habitats, presenting an array of threats to this species, due to the effects warming has on sea ice extent, Antarctic Krill (Euphausia Superba) populations and snowfall.

Warming trends in the Antarctic region have been widely reported, particularly since the end of the 20th Century. One effect of climate change is a loss of sea ice due to warmer waters in the Southern Antarctic Ocean. This can have detrimental, direct impacts on these penguins, who are described as ice loving. They often use floes or fast ice, which seasonally develop close to land, as a means of returning to their nests before breeding season begins.

Additionally, a reduction in sea ice encourages the not-so-ice-loving penguin species to take over, for example Gentoo or Macaroni penguins. This can lead to intraspecies competition for food; Gentoo and Macaroni species may thrive, but Adélies may decline.

Climate change also impacts the Antarctic Krill. A keystone species providing a food source for much of the wildlife in Antarctica. The importance of krill to polar penguins has long been documented. For example, during periods of sealing and whaling, krill populations experienced huge increases, subsequently, the Adélie penguin populations also thrived.

Sea ice extent has a direct impact on whether krill populations thrive, as they feed on algae that are found below the ice. Less food available to krill will therefore result in less successful breeding seasons. Warmer waters are simply unable to support krill. Even a warming as small 0.26°C is significant enough to pose a threat. Given the importance of krill to their diets, Adélie breeding pairs may find it increasingly hard to care for their chicks due to the lack of food. Research published last year indicates that when there is a higher amount of krill available, fledglings have higher weights, giving stronger chances of survival.

As well as the changes in sea ice and krill populations, there are impacts on snowfall in this region, again causing problems for the Adélies. Warming in the Antarctic region affects the Polar Jet Stream. The impact of warmer marine waters (and subsequently warm, moist air) on the Polar Jet Stream can lead to an increase in snowfall. This can spell trouble for these ice-lovers, as land covered in heavy snow does not allow an optimum habitat for breeding and makes it difficult to find building materials for nests.

The impact of climate change on the Adélie Penguin is clearly a serious threat. Perhaps increased monitoring of the species may be beneficial? The monitoring of Antarctic Krill may also be able to help protect the Adélie, by influencing fishing quotas and working to sustain their populations, therefore sustaining a food source for many Antarctic species.


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Hi - i'm Kate, a human geography student at the University of Southampton.

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