Thousands of emperor penguin chicks are drowning as sea ice disappears from the Antarctic, warns expert
Emperor penguins are the largest living penguin species on Earth standing at approximately 115 cm tall. The birds find partners and generally mate for life. They work together to keep their chicks fed and safe until they are mature enough to swim. The emperors might look like they are hopeless at walking on land but they are fantastic swimmers. These penguins have been recorded to have the deepest and longest dives of any bird on the planet, capable of reaching depths of over 200 meters. One bird was even recorded at a depth of 565 meters.
The birds are fascinating creatures but one particular colony has suffered a massive loss in recent years. A major catastrophe took place in 2016 in Antarctica's Weddell Sea in which thousands of emperor penguin chicks died after they drowned when the sea ice on which they were being raised by their parents was destroyed due to severe weather.
Scientists said that the colony, which was located at the edge of the Brunt Ice Shelf, has now collapsed and the adult birds are not showing any signs of trying to re-establish the population. The team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is the one that reported the staggering loss of birds. Dr. Peter Fretwell and Dr. Phil Trathan had noticed that the Halley Bay colony had suddenly disappeared when they were looking through satellite images
The population in Brunt, which generally had an average of 14,000 to 25,000 breeding pairs for a few decades, simply vanished overnight. This particular concentration of birds was said to make up five to nine percent of the global population.
Emperor penguins are the tallest and the heaviest of the penguin species and they require reliable patches of sea-ice to be able to breed. The sea ice has to be able to last from April, when the birds arrive at the spot, to December, when their chicks normally fledge. If the essential sea ice breaks up too early in the year, the chicks will not have the correct feathers in order to start swimming. This is what appears to have taken place in 2016.
Dr. Fretwell told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW): "There are many species that live on and rely on the sea ice. In the Antarctic, emperor and Adelie penguins and four species of seals depend on the floating ice. The sea ice is also a critical nursery for krill — the prey item which is the staple of almost all higher predators in the Southern Ocean."
Populations of this magnificent bird have declined by up to 50% in some places and one colony off the Antarctic Peninsula, according to the WWF, has disappeared altogether. The biggest threat they face is climate change because of the sea ice that they depend heavily on. Only two species of penguins live in the Antarctic, the Emperor, and Adélie. Breeding colonies of the former are found around the entire coast of the continent.
Emperor penguins are probably the only birds that never set foot on land because their colonies live on sea ice. They even breed on it but the sea ice is very vulnerable to climate change making the penguin's future pretty bleak.
Considering that the emperors are a major part of the food chain, protecting them is a way to look after the delicate ecosystem they thrive in. Emperor penguins eat various creatures like squid and small fish. They themselves are an important food source for predators such as leopard seals and large sharks.
Dr. Fretwell concluded: "Emperor penguins are a unique species, they are the only birds that breed on sea ice — the frozen sea, but their reliance on this ice means that they are vulnerable to climate change."