Nav: Home

Study recommends special protection of emperor penguins

October 08, 2019

In a new study published this week (Wednesday 9 October) in the journal Biological Conservation, an international team of researchers recommends the need for additional measures to protect and conserve one of the most iconic Antarctic species - the emperor penguin (Aptenodyptes forsteri).

The researchers reviewed over 150 studies on the species and its environment as well as its behaviour and character in relation to its breeding biology. Current climate change projections indicate that rising temperatures and changing wind patterns will impact negatively the sea ice on which emperor penguins breed; and some studies indicate that emperor populations will decrease by more than 50% over the current century. The researchers therefore recommend that the IUCN status for the species be escalated to 'vulnerable'; the species is currently listed as 'near threatened' on the IUCN Red List. They conclude that improvements in climate change forecasting in relation to impacts on Antarctic wildlife would be beneficial, and recommend that the emperor penguin should be listed by the Antarctic Treaty as a Specially Protected Species.

Lead author Dr Philip Trathan, Head of Conservation Biology at British Antarctic Survey, says:

"The current rate of warming in parts of the Antarctic is greater than anything in the recent glaciological record. Though emperor penguins have experienced periods of warming and cooling over their evolutionary history, the current rates of warming are unprecedented."

"Currently, we have no idea how the emperors will adjust to the loss of their primary breeding habitat - sea ice. They are not agile and climbing ashore across steep coastal land forms will be difficult. For breeding, they depend upon sea ice, and in a warming world there is a high probability that this will decrease. Without it, they will have little or no breeding habitat."

Greater protection measures will enable scientists to coordinate research into the penguins' resilience to a range of different threats and stressors.

Dr Peter Fretwell, remote sensing specialist at British Antarctic Survey and co-author says:

"Some colonies of emperor penguins may not survive the coming decades, so we must work to give as much protection as we can to the species to give them the best chance."

The UK, supported by a number of other countries whose researchers have engaged in this scientific work, notified the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting at its 2019 meeting, held in Prague in July, that Emperor Penguins were threatened through the loss of their breeding habitat and that further protections should be developed. A similar paper has also been submitted to this year's Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which meets in Hobart later this month, where the UK is also supporting a number of proposals to extend the coverage of Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean.
-end-
The emperor penguin - vulnerable to projected rates of warming and sea ice loss by Philip N. Trathan, Barbara Wienecke, Christophe Barbraud, Stéphanie Jenouvrier, Gerald Kooyman, Céline Le Bohec, David G. Ainley, André Ancel, Daniel P. Zitterbart, Steven L. Chown, Michelle Larue, Robin Cristofari, Jane Younger, Gemma Clucas, Charles-André Bost, Jennifer A. Brown, Harriet J. Gillett, PeterT. Fretwell is published in the journal Biological Conservation published by Elsevier on Wednesday 9 October 2019 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108216).

Notes for Editors:

Issued by the British Antarctic Survey Press Office.

Athena Dinar amdi@bas.ac.uk tel. +44 (0) 1223 221441, mobile: +44 (0)7909 008516

Further information


The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, founded in 1964, is the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. It uses a set of criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies. It defines a "Vulnerable" species as one likely to become endangered unless the circumstances that are threatening its survival and reproduction improve. Vulnerability is often caused by decreases in population resulting from habitat loss or destruction of the species home. "Vulnerable" is a step higher than 'Near threatened".

Emperor penguins are unique amongst birds in that they breed on seasonal Antarctic sea ice. They need sea ice during the time that they incubate their eggs and whilst they raise their chicks. Emperors also need stable sea ice after they complete breeding during the time when they undertake their annual moult, a period during which they cannot enter the water as their feathers are no longer waterproof.

The first emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) ever captured was probably taken 200 years ago during the Russian Naval Expedition of 1819-1821, under the command of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. The species was first described scientifically and distinguished from its closest relative, the king penguin (A. patagonicus), in 1844 by George Robert Gray, head of ornithology at the British Museum. Gray examined and described specimens from the British Naval Expedition of 1839-1843, under the command of James Clarke Ross, and named the emperor penguin with its specific Latin name in honour of Johann Reinhold Forster, the naturalist on James Cook's second voyage of 1772-1775.

Prior to breeding, both males and females must build their body reserves, necessary for females to lay their single egg, and for males to fast while undertaking the entire egg incubation during the Antarctic winter. Birds gather at their preferred sites from April onwards, upon development of stable fast ice. Courtship, egg laying and incubation occur as winter proceeds. Chicks hatch and are brooded during July and August, the coldest time in Antarctica. Chicks then begin to crèche in September, when left alone in the colony so that both parents can forage simultaneously to satisfy the chick's growing demands. Chicks are provisioned by both parents until they fledge, usually during December, just before the fast ice begins to break out. By this time, chicks must have replaced their natal down with feathers that provide water-proofing and insulation.

Adults moult between January and March, on accessible islands, on the continental ice cap where it is accessible, on sea ice, or consolidated pack ice, floes that normally drift with the ocean and wind, but which may merge and combine. Unlike all other seabird families, penguins undertake a catastrophic moult, during which they replace their entire plumage within a few weeks; during this time, their plumage no longer provides water-proofing and they cannot enter the sea. Thus, they must have a stable platform and sufficient body reserves to moult successfully.

Emperor penguins depend upon stable fast ice throughout their breeding period. Consequently, late sea ice formation, early break up, or even complete failure of fast ice formation, strongly reduces the chances of successful breeding and species persistence at any given breeding location.

Philip Trathan and Peter Fretwell were funded partly by the Natural Environment Research Council and by the charity WWF.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS), an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the Polar Regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know-how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs. For more information visit http://www.bas.ac.uk

British Antarctic Survey

Related Sea Ice Articles:

Earth's glacial cycles enhanced by Antarctic sea-ice
A 784,000 year climate simulation suggests that Southern Ocean sea ice significantly reduces deep ocean ventilation to the atmosphere during glacial periods by reducing both atmospheric exposure of surface waters and vertical mixing of deep ocean waters; in a global carbon cycle model, these effects led to a 40 ppm reduction in atmospheric CO2 during glacial periods relative to pre-industrial level, suggesting how sea ice can drive carbon sequestration early within a glacial cycle.
Arctic sea ice can't 'bounce back'
Arctic sea ice cannot 'quickly bounce back' if climate change causes it to melt, new research suggests.
Cracks in Arctic sea ice turn low clouds on and off
The prevailing view has been that more leads are associated with more low-level clouds during winter.
Evidence: Antarctica's thinning ice shelves causing more ice to move from land into sea
New study provides the first evidence that thinning ice shelves around Antarctica are causing more ice to move from the land into the sea.
Low sea-ice cover in the Arctic
The sea-ice extent in the Arctic is nearing its annual minimum at the end of the melt season in September.
Study shows algae thrive under Greenland sea ice
Microscopic marine plants flourish beneath the ice that covers the Greenland Sea, according to a new study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.
ICESat-2 reveals profile of ice sheets, sea ice, forests
With each pass of the ICESat-2 satellite, the mission is adding to datasets tracking Earth's rapidly changing ice.
Arctic cyclone limits the time-scale of precise sea-ice prediction in Northern Sea Route?
Climate change has accelerated sea-ice retreat in the Arctic Ocean, leading to new opportunities for summer commercial maritime navigation along the Northern Sea Route.
Ocean waves following sea ice loss trigger Antarctic ice shelf collapse
Storm-driven ocean swells have triggered the catastrophic disintegration of Antarctic ice shelves in recent decades, according to new research published in Nature today.
New technique more accurately reflects ponds on Arctic sea ice
This one simple mathematical trick can accurately predict the shape and melting effects of ponds on Arctic sea ice, according to new research by UChicago scientists.
More Sea Ice News and Sea Ice Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.