Penguins are known for their perseverance against the elements, but they can’t surmount all challenges, especially not at their youngest and most vulnerable. Now the worst has come to pass for one Antarctic colony as all but two Adelie penguin chicks from over 18,000 adult mating pairs were found to have starved to death in a “catastrophic” breeding season.
It’s the second time in four years that this particular colony has experienced such devastation, according to experts who have seen nothing else like these wipeouts in over 50 years of observation. The release of the findings by French scientists on Friday, which were observed at the beginning of 2017 during late summer in the southern hemisphere, coincides with the lead up to a major international meeting next week in Hobart, Australia. There, the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups are pushing a proposal for a new Marine Protected Area in the waters off East Antarctica where the Adelie penguins live.
According to the researchers, the cause of the mass starvation was extensive sea ice that made it harder for the adult penguins to get out to krill-rich waters and back with food. When they visited earlier this year, the researchers found thousands of starved chicks and unhatched eggs across Petrels Island in a region appropriately called Adelie Land.
Yan Ropert-Coudert, senior penguin scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, attributed the bulk of these extensive survival challenges to the break up of the Mertz glacier in Eastern Antarctica in 2010.
“The Mertz glacier impact on the region sets the scene in 2010 and when unusual meteorological events, driven by large climatic variations, hit in some years this leads to massive failures,” Ropert-Coudert told the Guardian. “In other words, there may still be years when the breeding will be OK, or even good for this colony, but the scene is set for massive impacts to hit on a more or less regular basis.”
Adelie penguins, which survive mostly on a diet of krill—small shrimp-like crustaceans—are doing well throughout most of East Antarctica even as they have been declining in the broader Antarctic region. The scientists worry that without the establishment of marine protections, the Adélie Land penguins could find it even harder to acquire food in the face of competition from fisheries.
“Penguin populations are generally robust to occasional reproductive failures under normal circumstances, like when their food web is intact and they are not encountering oil pollution or other stressers,” Grant Ballard, Chief Science Officer with Point Blue Conservation Science, told Earther. “If climate change is causing complete failures like this due to rain or flooding events, the least we can do is to not add insult to injury by directly degrading their ecosystem.”
Ballard said that while unusual, he wouldn’t say this breeding failure was that “surprising,” as there’s evidence that similar things have happened periodically in the past.
“We witnessed similar failures on Ross Island in 2001-02 due to a giant iceberg altering conditions and severely impeding access to the colonies,” he said.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which is made up of 25 member states and the EU, oversees the vast and highly contested waters around Antarctica. The group will consider a proposal for an East Antarctic Marine Protected Area (MPA) when they meet starting on October 16. While the proposal has been under consideration for nearly a decade, ambitions are high this year after the group adopted the Ross Sea MPA last year—which is now the largest protected area in the world at 598,000 square miles, or more than twice the size of Texas.
“The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adelie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable,” Rod Downie, Head of Polar Programmes at WWF-UK, said in a statement. “So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new Marine Protected Area for the waters off East Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins.”
Even with additional protections, Adelie penguins across Antarctica will face serious existential challenges in coming years, especially in the face of climate change. While the relationship between climate change and the sea-ice extent around Antarctica is still being determined, a study last year published in Scientific Reports found that 60 percent of Adelie penguin habitat in Antarctica could be unfit to host colonies by the end of the century due to dramatic shifts in regional climate. Climate change could lead to warmer waters with less food and also less ideal nesting habitats.
Adelie penguins are one of only two true Antarctic penguins, the other being emperor penguins. They have inhabited the frigid continent for thousands of years. This century will test their endurance.