Thousands of Adélie penguin chicks have starved to death in Antarctica. Climate change has led to particularly thick sea ice, so parent penguins have had to travel further to find food – leaving their hungry chicks behind.
French scientists, supported by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), studied a colony on Petrels Island, Antarctica, with 18,000 breeding pairs. The region is commonly referred to as Terre Adélie (“Adélie Land”) due to the vast numbers of penguins that live there.
This year, out of all the chicks born in the colony, only two survived. The researchers discovered thousands of unhatched eggs and dead chicks scattered in the snow.
“This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins. It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land,” said Rod Downie, WWF’s head of polar programmes, in a statement.
Four years ago, a similar event happened. The colony – then with 20,196 breeding pairs – didn’t produce a single surviving chick.
Antarctica has actually been suffering from a lack of sea ice in many areas, but Petrels Island is one exception. This is because, back in 2010, the Mertz glacier tongue broke apart, and a huge iceberg the size of Luxembourg broke away. This happened about 250 kilometers (155 miles) away from Terra Adélie and caused changes in ocean currents and ice formation in the area.
The ice caused the adult penguins to journey 100 kilometers (62 miles) more than they would normally in search of food – they mostly eat krill. Meanwhile, the chicks were left hungry and unable to cope in the rainy conditions due to their down not being waterproof yet.
“For the moment, sea ice is increasing and this is a problem for this species as it pushes the feeding place – the sea ice edge – farther away from their nesting place,” study leader Yan Ropert-Coudert, from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, told The Guardian. “If it shrinks it would help but if it shrinks too much then the food chain they rely on may be impacted. Basically, as a creature of the sea ice, they need an optimum sea-ice cover to thrive.”
Next week, the EU, along with 25 other countries, will discuss the potential formation of more Antarctic Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) at the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Whilst MPAs won’t stop climate change from disrupting sea ice, they might protect penguins, and other marine creatures, from threats like increased tourism and fisheries.
"The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adélie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable," said Downie.