The majestic king penguin – 1 meter (3 feet) tall, mostly monogamous, and exceedingly photogenic – is thriving with an estimated 3.2 million individuals. Sadly, its fortunes could be reversed within as little as 90 years due to human-driven climate change.
According to a new study published in Nature Climate Change, shifting weather patterns could soon drive the king penguins away from the sub-Antarctic islands they call home, and close to extinction.
Like other penguin species, mated pairs of king penguins alternate tending to their chicks on land while the other fattens up at sea, a dangerous journey that can span up to 400 miles (640 kilometers) roundtrip, and take more than one week.
Though they travel hundreds of miles during foraging expeditions and spend months at sea between the winter-to-spring breeding seasons, king penguins are ultimately homebodies; and somewhat choosy ones at that. They only nest on islands located between 45 and 55 degrees south: A region with relatively mild year-round temperatures and rich nutrient upwelling (and thus an abundance of krill and fish) known as the Antarctic Polar Front.
But the Antarctic Polar Front is beginning to move south. Using climate projection models, the study’s international research team have determined that the distance from the most densely occupied islands to areas of adequate food will stretch and stretch, making survival more and more unlikely, until about 2100; when the penguin mate and chick waiting on shore would most certainly starve before the other adult returns.
By this time, an estimated 70 percent of all king penguins, including the entire Prince Edward and Crozet Islands populations, would face extinction if they did not relocate to an island closer to the new Antarctic Polar Front.
“We know that penguin populations will collapse soon,” said study co-author Céline Le Bohec to The Verge. “They are showing us the tip of the iceberg of what is happening in the ecosystems.”
In a somewhat comforting finding, the team’s analysis of historical and genetic data implies that king penguins are at least somewhat capable of adapting to new habitats.
Yet even if they relocate to islands closer to Antarctica, survival is no guarantee. Many Southern Ocean islands are not large enough to support the species’ large colonies, or are already home to other penguin species.
"There are still some islands further south where King penguins may retreat, but the competition for breeding sites and for food will be harsh, especially with the other penguin species like the Chinstrap, Gentoo, or Adélie penguins,” Dr Le Bohec said in a statement.
“It is difficult to predict the outcome, but there will surely be losses on the way. If we want to save anything, proactive and efficient conservation efforts but, above all, coordinated global action against global warming should start now."