Droves of Antarc­tic pen­guin chicks starve

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LIFE -

Mass star­va­tion has wiped out thou­sands of pen­guin chicks in Antarc­tica, with un­usu­ally thick sea ice forc­ing their par­ents to for­age fur­ther for food in what con­ser­va­tion­ists Fri­day called a “cat­a­strophic breed­ing fail­ure.”

French sci­en­tists, sup­ported by WWF, have been study­ing a colony of 18,000 pairs of Adelie pen­guins in East Antarc­tica since 2010 and dis­cov­ered only two chicks sur­vived the most re­cent breed­ing sea­son in early 2017.

They at­trib­uted the dis­as­ter to ex­ten­sive sea ice late in the sum­mer, mean­ing the adult pen­guins had to travel fur­ther to find food, with the chicks dy­ing as they waited.

Yan Rop­ert-Coud­ert, se­nior pen­guin sci­en­tist at Du­mont D’Urville re­search sta­tion, ad­ja­cent to the colony, said the re­gion was im­pacted by en­vi­ron­men­tal changes linked to the breakup of the Mertz glacier.

“The con­di­tions are set for this to hap­pen more fre­quently due to the break­ing of the Mertz glacier in 2010 that changed the con­fig­u­ra­tion of the stretch of sea in front of the colony,” he told AFP. “But there are other fac­tors needed to have a zero year: a mix of tem­per­a­ture, wind di­rec­tion and strength, no open­ing of polynya in front of the colony.”

A polynya is an area of un­frozen sea within an ice pack.

He added that the com­ing sea­son seemed to be bet­ter for the birds in terms of sea ice “but we never know how it will turn un­for­tu­nately.”

Sur­viv­ing mostly on a diet of krill – a small shrimp-like crus­tacean – Adelie pen­guins, slick and ef­fi­cient swim­mers, have been gen­er­ally far­ing well in East Antarc­tica.

But they have been de­clin­ing in the Antarc­tic re­gion more gen­er­ally where cli­mate change has taken its toll, with shift­ing ice re­duc­ing habi­tat while warm­ing seas af­fect their prey.

Four years ago, the same colony, which num­bered 20,196 pairs at the time, failed to pro­duce a sin­gle chick.

Heavy sea ice, com­bined with un­usu­ally warm weather and rain fol­lowed by a rapid drop in tem­per­a­ture, re­sulted in them be­com­ing sat­u­rated and freez­ing to death.

News of the pen­guin’s prob­lems came ahead of an an­nual meet­ing next week in Ho­bart of the 25mem­ber Con­ven­tion on the Con­ser­va­tion of Antarc­tic Ma­rine Liv­ing Re­sources.

Last year CCAMLR agreed to cre­ate the world’s largest ma­rine sanc­tu­ary cov­er­ing more than 1.55 mil­lion square kilo­me­ters – roughly the size of Bri­tain, Ger­many and France com­bined – in the Ross Sea area of Antarc­tica.

But time ran out on a sec­ond pro­posed pro­tected area in East Antarc­tica, cov­er­ing another 1-mil­lion­square-kilo­me­ter zone, where the pen­guins died.

Hopes are high it will get the green light this time with WWF’s head of po­lar pro­grams Rod Downie say­ing it would help se­cure the fu­ture for Adelie pen­guins. “The risk of open­ing up this area to ex­ploratory krill fish­eries, which would com­pete with the Adelie pen­guins for food as they re­cover from two cat­a­strophic breed­ing fail­ures in four years, is un­think­able,” he said.

Adelie pen­guin num­bers have been de­clin­ing as cli­mate change has taken its toll, with shift­ing ice re­duc­ing habi­tat while warm­ing seas af­fect their prey.

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