Posted by: thewideblueyonder | February 2, 2009

Could melting sea ice make penguins extinct?

Excerpts from the Boston Globe’s environmental blog.

Climate change is threatening many charismatic species, but if you’ve ever seen the Academy Award winning documentary “March of the Penguins,” the latest research out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is bound to make you pause.

Emperor penguins – those regal anthropomorphized Antarctic animals – may be heading for extinction.

A new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that the world’s largest penguins could suffer serious population declines through at least part of their range before the end of the century. The paper, coauthored by five researchers and led by woods Hole biologists Stephanie Jenouvrier and Hal Caswell, used mathematical models to predict the effect of climate change on penguins.

Penguins need sea ice to breed, feed, and molt on. The ice also serves as a grazing ground for krill – tiny crustaceans that pen guins, along with fish, whales, and seals, feed on. The research indicates if climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rates published in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, the median population size of a large emperor penguin colony such as one in Terre Adélie, Antarctica, is likely to shrink from its present size of 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs by the end of the century. About 40 emperor penguin colonies exist worldwide.

Emperor penguins weigh about 66 pounds and can stand about 3.8 feet tall. They can dive to a depth of 1,800 feet and hold their breath for up to 22 minutes – allowing them to get food other birds can’t get. Researchers say the probability of a population decline of 95 percent or more is at least 40 percent, and perhaps as much as 80 percent. If that many penguins are lost, extinction could occur.

Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the emperor penguin under the Endangered Species Act.

BETH DALEY

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