Emperor penguins more durable in face of vanishing ice

The short to medium-term future for emperor penguins might be brighter than previously thought.

Concern for the future of the world’s largest penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) has been high following the catastrophic breeding failure of several west-Antarctic penguin colonies in 2022 and the unprecedented low formation of sea ice around the continent.

Compared to 2022 – the previous record low – an area of ice the size of the Northern Territory failed to accumulate on the Antarctic shoreline this year. What sea ice did form is now in retreat.

Thousands of emperor penguins gather to breed.
Thousands of Emperor penguins gather to breed. Credit: Stefan Christmann/ Getty Images

Sea ice levels are expected to worsen in the coming decades without steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has forecast a loss of 80% of emperor penguins by the end of the century.

But French marine scientists say the species could withstand sudden sea ice loss, at least in the short term.

Analysing high-quality satellite images of the continent, the research team found emperor penguins occupy a range of habitats, which they say is a “radical change” that challenges perceptions of where the species lives.

This might result in greater dispersal of penguin colonies when the ice platforms change.

“Our study strongly suggests that in the short- to medium-term, the identified breeding populations and habitats should be considered as separate units for management and population projections,” says Dr Sara Labrousse, a marine ecologist from Sorbonne University who led the study, published today in Science Advances.

Labrousse explains, though, that this scenario is merely a stay of execution for emperor penguins, and that a failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will keep the species on a trajectory to worst-case scenarios by the end of the century.

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