It’s black and white: penguins threatened by climate change

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast.

Guest post by Gerald L. Kooyman

According to Dee Boersma and Ginger Rebstock’s recent article in the open access online journal PLOS-one, the population of the world’s largest Magellanic penguin colony, located in Punta Tombo, Argentina, declined by 20% between 1983 and 2010. Boersma and Rebstock noted that most chick deaths result from starvation and predation during the first twenty days of age after hatching. The effect of cold rain storms are another factor contributing to chick mortality; chicks are still covered in down, their main insulation, which lacks the waterproofing protection of a feather coat.

In this rare long-term study, up to 213 chicks were followed per season and checked daily during the research window of October–February. A total of 3,500 chicks were studied over the course of the twenty-seven-year-long investigation. This is the first report to document the type of weather conditions that has a strong negative effect on non-Antarctic species living in cold-temperate waters—in this case, off the Argentine coast. Climate modelers predict that storms will become more frequent and severe. If their models are correct, then—like many of the northern species of penguins, most of which are classified by conservation organizations such as the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as either endangered or vulnerable—the future does not look bright for the Magellanic penguins of this colony. In addition to the serious storm-induced problems, offshore oil pollution  and the penguins’ inevitable competition with commercial fisheries will place the health and safety of the birds of Punta Tombo in further jeopardy.

This paper is especially important because of the long-term duration of the study and the elegant way the investigators have connected the future colony’s prospects to climate change models. There are few such studies, and the Boersma/Rebstock report will be frequently referenced in the discourse of climate change effects on wildlife and humankind.

Adult Magellanic penguin showing the distinct lateral stripe. Photo: Wayne Lynch

Magellanic penguin at the edge of the very large colony at Punta Tombo, Argentina. Photo by Wayne Lynch.

To read about these flightless birds and to see more wonderful photographs, check out Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide by naturalist Gerald L. Kooyman and photographer Wayne Lynch.