Thanks to movies like March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, Emperor penguins are a pretty well known breed of the adorable bird. Unfortunately, their popularity in Hollywood doesn’t guarantee a thriving population.
According to a new study by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Emperor penguins may eventually disappear from their home in the East Antarctic. Over the last 100 years, the Dion Islets penguin colony near the West Antarctic Peninsula has already disappeared.
More than 150 breeding pairs in the colony were accounted for as recently as the 1970s, but in 1999, the count was down to 20 pairs. As of 2009, the count was at zero.
The team of researchers believe the decline was due to a loss of Antarctic sea ice as a result of warming temperatures. This is particularly important to the Emperor penguin, as they raise their young almost entirely on sea ice. If the ice is no longer there, massive drops in breeding occur.
On top of breeding issues, less sea ice will also affect these penguins food sources. They eat mostly fish, krill, and squid, which all feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton that grow under the ice. If the ice goes, so do these food sources. It’s a big ripple effect of bad news.
The team used sea ice forecasts, climate models, and demographic information to determine the root causes of the Emperor penguin decline. Their results suggested that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at the levels they’re currently at, the Emperor population will slowly decline until 2040. The population will then decline much faster as sea ice coverage drops below any usable levels.
Today, the total population has roughly 3,000 breeding pairs. By 2100, scientists project there will be only 500 to 600 left.