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‘Unprecedented’ Antarctic Warming Spells Trouble for Emperor Penguins

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With Antarctica warming at “unprecedented” rates, British researchers are calling for much stronger efforts to protect the emperor penguin, as the sea ice upon which the birds depend for their breeding and molting cycles grows ever more uncertain in depth and duration.

Researchers currently “have no idea how the emperors will adjust to the loss of their primary breeding habitat—sea ice,” Dr. Philip Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey, told [1] Climate News Network. “They are not agile, and climbing ashore across steep coastal land forms will be difficult.”

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Emperors “are unique amongst birds because they breed on seasonal Antarctic sea ice, which they need while incubating their eggs and raising their chicks,” explains Climate News Net. “They also need stable sea ice after they have completed breeding,” when they undergo their month-long annual molt, a process that leaves them unable to enter the icy sea water until their new warm and waterproof feathers grow in.

“Current climate change projections indicate that rising temperatures and changing wind patterns will damage the sea ice on which the emperors breed, with some studies showing populations likely to fall by more than 50% over this century,” the UK news outlet notes.

Fearing for the long-term survival of the species, Trathan and his international team of researchers urge greater efforts to protect the emperor penguin in a recent study published in the journal Biological Conservation. Key recommendations include raising the emperor from its current status of “near-threatened” to “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, and better understanding how climate change will affect all Antarctic wildlife.