When we think of the loss of ice on our planet, our hearts break for ice-dwelling animals like Emperor penguins.
According to this new research, even though the long-term future of this species isn’t bright, not all hope is lost. Some of them have a chance to survive in specific conditions and location, at least for several decades.
Within the last two years, the Antarctic Sea ice faced a significant reduction. This led scientists to come up with the possibility of a new condition for the penguins.
Looking at a study based on satellite imagery, there was an early sea ice break in Antarctica’s Bellingshausen Sea in 2022. This could potentially result in breeding failures in multiple Emperor penguin colonies within that region.
The research shows that Emperor penguins establish colonies in various environmental conditions, varying with their location on the continent.
What the researchers found was interesting. There’s actually not much difference between the penguins’ chosen habitats and alternative sites within each region. This means that the penguins could adapt should the situation demanded it.
That’s why the researchers became optimistic about the future of the penguins in our current situation.
Breeding failure and loss of sea ice
In a study published in Communications Earth & Environment researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) found the early sea ice break. The researchers then discovered alarming findings about the breeding habits of emperor penguins in Antarctica.
Per this study, a region of Antarctica experienced a complete loss of sea ice in 2022. This led to a severe breeding failure among emperor penguin colonies.
These penguin colonies in the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea depend heavily on stable sea ice for their breeding. They were hit the hardest.
Based on satellite images, the loss of sea ice occurred well before penguin chicks had the chance to develop waterproof feathers.
The researchers suggest that this might lead to a high mortality rate. It might turn out that no chicks survived in four out of the five known emperor penguin colonies in the area.
In December 2022, the Antarctic Sea ice reached a new low. Most of the loss happened in the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea region.
Lead author of this study Dr Peter Fretwell stated that the team had never seen a massive breeding failure in a single season. The loss of sea ice during the Antarctic summer made it hard for the chicks to survive.
Such ice loss highlighted the risks and threats facing Emperor penguins in a warming climate. And, the team were concerned that extreme sea ice loss occurrences could become more frequent and widespread.
Adaptable birds facing ice loss
Unlike other species of penguins, Emperor penguins are unique because they rarely dwell on land.
These majestic birds breed on sea ice during the harsh Antarctic winter and rely on “fast ice.” Fast ice is coastal sea ice connected to the Antarctic continent or ice shelves.
In the past 45 years, Antarctica has experienced four of the lowest sea ice extents. Between 2018 and 2022, about 30% of 62 known Emperor penguin colonies faced partial or total sea ice loss.
But, the penguins can also live in different fast ice locations with differing characteristics. The differing characteristics include ice formation, quantity, proximity to other penguin species, and more.
Moreover, the penguins exhibit flexible behaviors, which may enable some colonies to better cope with a warming world. Although, the adaptability depends on their location along the Antarctic coast.
Now, the penguins are known for their strategy of relocating to more stable sites in the next year. But, the BAS researchers said that this may not work when the whole sea ice habitat in a region is affected.
Locations, locations, locations
Fast ice is important for the penguins because it provides a stable platform for Emperor penguins during their breeding season. Female Emperors lay eggs, and males incubate them for about two and a half months.
The researchers highlighted that the reduction in Antarctica’s sea ice is mostly related to sea ice. It includes all sea ice in the polar ocean, whether it’s fast ice or drifting pack ice.
When there’s a decrease in sea ice, it doesn’t directly lead to a reduction in the area covered by fast ice.
Should fast ice disappear, over 90% of Emperor penguin colonies are expected to become functionally extinct by the end of the century.
However, the study suggests that short to medium-term strategies for penguin protection should consider differences in their breeding habitats.
And upon closer observation of different fast ice habitats, the researchers found another interesting discovery. It turns out, Emperor penguins exhibit specific preferences. As mentioned, proximity to other penguin species, namely Adélie penguins, can influence their preference.
But other factors play a role, as well. The penguins can change their mind following the duration of fast ice into summer and shallow ocean depths near the colony.
Observing the emperor penguins more
The researchers stated that further studies are necessary. Because when that happens, we can explore connections between population size and habitat quality. Prey availability and other factors may also play significant roles in the relationship.
In addition, previous research has shown that these penguins have limited mobility to seek more suitable climate refuges. Genetic distinctions among penguin populations in various Antarctic regions proved it. Therefore, more studies are important for the future of the penguins.
Nonetheless, climate change remains a primary threat for Emperor penguins.
Moreover, fishing activities have historically and presently contributed to the degradation of marine biodiversity globally.
Such activities include Antarctica, where large vessels target krill, a vital food source for many Antarctic predators, including Emperor penguins.
The current climate models have predicted further sea ice reductions, which may lead to new fishing opportunities. This would add more pressure to other Antarctic wildlife.
Per the researchers, there should be steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to protect Emperor penguins. Another crucial step is restricting fishing in areas most vulnerable to climate change.
Additionally, the research suggests that we can focus on marine protected areas. These areas offer a valuable tool for conservation, especially with the improved understanding of penguin habitats provided by this research.
For instance, the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea, which is home to a significant portion of the world’s Emperor penguins. They can serve as a source of valuable insights for protecting these birds across Antarctica.
So, what the researchers need to do next is to keep observing the penguins. The rest of us? Do what we should do to keep wildlife in icy habitats alive.