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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Matthew Taylor

Antarctica's king penguins 'could disappear' by the end of the century

King Penguins in Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island.
King penguins in Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island. Photograph: MB Photography/Getty Images

Rising temperatures and overfishing in the pristine waters around the Antarctic could see king penguin populations pushed to the brink of extinction by the end of the century, according to a new study.

The report, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that as global warming transforms the environment in the world’s last great wilderness 70% of king penguins could either disappear or be forced to find new breeding grounds.

Co-author Céline Le Bohec, from the CNRS/University of Strasbourg in France, warned the species “could disappear” unless urgent steps were taken.

“If no actions aiming at halting or controlling global warming, and the pace of the current human-induced changes – climate change, overfishing – stay the same, the species may disappear in the near future.”

The findings come amid growing concern over the future of the Antarctic. Earlier this month a separate study found that a combination of climate change and industrial fishing is threatening the krill population in Antarctic waters, with a potentially disastrous impact on whales, seals and penguins.

But today’s report is the starkest warning yet of the potentially devastating impact of climate change and human exploitation on the Antarctic’s delicate eco-systems.

Le Bochec said: “Unless current greenhouse gas emissions drop, 70% of king penguins – 1.1 million breeding pairs – will be forced to relocate their breeding grounds, or face extinction before the end of the century.”

King penguins – the second largest type of penguin – only breed on specific isolated islands in the Southern Ocean where there is no ice cover and easy access to the sea.

King penguins in Antarctica

As the ocean warms a body of water called the Antarctic polar front – an upwelling of nutrient rich sea that supports huge abundance of marine life – is being pushed further south. This means that king penguins, that feed on fish and krill in this body of water, have to travel further to their feeding grounds leaving their hungry chicks for longer.

And as the distance between their breeding grounds and their food grows, scientists predict entire colonies will be wiped out.

Le Bohec, who led the study with Robin Cristofari from the Centre Scientifique de Monaco and Emiliano Trucchi from the University of Ferrara in Italy, said the plight of the king penguin should serve as a warning about the future of the entire marine environment in the Antarctic.

“Penguins, like other seabirds and marine mammals, occupy higher trophic levels in the ecosystems: they are what we call bio-indicators of their ecosystems,” she said.

“Thus, penguins, as sensitive indicators of changes in marine ecosystems, are key species for understanding and predicting impacts of global change on the marine biome, and on polar regions for species living in sub-Antarctic and Antarctic areas.”

The report found that, although some king penguins may be able to relocate to new breeding grounds closer to their retreating food source, suitable new habitats would be scarce.

“The main issue is that there are only a handful of islands in the Southern Ocean and not all of them are suitable to sustain large breeding colonies,” said Cristofari.

Le Bohec added: “There are still some islands further south where king penguins may retreat but the competition for breeding sites and food will be harsh, especially with other species like the chinstrap, gentoo or Adélie penguins, even without the fisheries.

“It is difficult to predict the outcome, but there will surely be losses on the way – if we are to save anything, proactive and efficient conservation efforts but above all coordinated global action against global warming should start now.”

Scientists and environmental campaigners are pushing for the creation of the world’s biggest marine protection area in the Antarctic. If successful the 1.8m sq km fishing-free zone would protect species, such as penguins, leopard seals and whales. Experts say it would also help mitigate the effects of climate change, soaking up huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it away in deep-sea sediments.

The proposal, which is backed by a range of governments and being championed by Greenpeace, goes before the the Antarctic decision-making body Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) later this year.

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