Special Report

Why Penguins Are So Much More Important Than You Think

Sometimes called “the best-dressed animals on the planet,” penguins do a lot more than make people smile. They are important players in the balance of the ecosystem.

Almost all of the 17 to 19 species of penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere, with only the Galápagos penguin living north of the equator. The most famous is the emperor penguin, which is also the largest, measuring 45 inches, and it lives on Antarctica. Some species live in forests in New Zealand and its Subantarctic Islands as well as beaches in southern Africa.

Penguins are known as the birds that can’t fly but can swim — their flippers can propel them up to 15 miles per hour — but this also makes them susceptible to climate change. It impacts the distribution of their food within the ocean by moving away and out of reach, drastically decreasing their numbers in the future.

Overfishing is a huge problem for several species, including the African penguins and yellow-eyed penguins, which is the most endangered species with only around 4,000 birds remaining. The erect-crested penguin, living in New Zealand, has lost 70% of its population over the last two decades. The Galapagos penguin is also at risk of extinction.

Increases in precipitation can also have negative consequences for baby penguins, which have down feathers for the first several months of their lives and should not get wet, Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist, explained. “Decreases in duration of sea ice in the Southern Ocean have already likely caused fledgling emperor penguin chicks to die because they hadn’t gotten their swimming feathers before the sea ice melted.” These changes are simply happening too quickly for the birds to adapt, LaRue noted.

As ocean and air temperatures warm, there will be less ice available in Antarctica, affecting Antarctic penguins. The emperor penguin relies on the ice, using it as a platform to hatch and raise chicks, according to LaRue. “And for both Adelie and emperor penguins, it’s a problem because the key prey species in the Southern Ocean – krill – relies on sea ice for its habitat.” Thus, less ice means less krill and less food for penguins.

Rising temperatures impact penguin species differently because some species, notably South American and African penguins, have adapted to deal with much warmer temperatures, LaRue noted. “So, physiologically they can deal with warmth better than emperor penguins can.” In those cases, it’s changes in ocean currents and distribution of prey caused by the warming waters that would probably affect the penguin population more than anything else.

The effects of changes in the penguin’s ecosystem are already seen, especially in some of the warmer (than the Southern Ocean waters) where penguins exist. The decrease in population is not good for ocean and coasts health, and it may be a sign of serious environmental problems.

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