RISING temperatures and overfishing in the pristine waters around the Antarctic could see king penguin populations pushed to the brink of extinction by the end of the century, according to a new study.
The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, predicted that under a “business-as-usual” scenario, 70 percent of today’s 1.1 million king penguin breeding pairs would abruptly relocate or disappear before 2100.
The problem, researchers say, is that the animals’ primary source of food is moving farther away from places where the penguins can breed. Meaning they’re very likely going to have to swim farther for their dinner.
The driving factor behind this shift is climate change, says lead researcher on the report Celine Le Bohec.
“If no actions aiming at halting or controlling global warming, and the pace of the current human-induced changes – climate change, overfishing – stay the same, the species may disappear in the near future,” Le Bohec told the Guardian.
The flightless king penguins, the second largest species of penguin after the emperor, breed only on specific islands in the Southern Ocean where there is no ice cover and easy access to the sea. They are able to make round trips of more than 600 kilometres hunting for fish and krill in the Antarctic waters, while their chicks fast for up to a week at a time.
The warming oceans are causing the Antarctic polar front – where cold waters from the Antarctic region meet and sink beneath warmer waters from the middle latitudes, creating a nutrient-rich upwelling and an abundance of marine life – to recede further south.
Adults are forced farther from their nests to find food, leaving their offspring alone and hungry for longer.
The study found that, although some king penguins may be able to relocate to new breeding grounds closer to their retreating food source, suitable new habitats would be scarce.
“The main issue is that there are only a handful of islands in the Southern Ocean and not all of them are suitable to sustain large breeding colonies,” said co-author Robin Cristofari from the Centre Scientifique de Monaco.
A campaign was set up in January by scientists and activists to turn a huge 1.8 million sq km tract of the seas around the Antarctic into the world’s biggest sanctuary in a bid to protect the wildlife and combat climate change.
Without this protection, the future of the king penguin, and many other Antarctic species is uncertain.
“It is difficult to predict the outcome,” La Bohec. “There will surely be losses on the way – if we are to save anything, proactive and efficient conservation efforts but above all coordinated global action against global warming should start now.”