Scientists have been growing increasingly concerned about penguins, worried that melting ice sheets and warming temperatures were leaving the birds with no place to go, writes Nature World News.
But a recent study shows that penguins may be better able to adapt to a changing environment than previously thought.
According to researchers for the University of Minnesota (UM), it has long been thought that as their habits continue to shrink, Antarctic penguin colonies stay put, until they eventually disappear with the melting ice, writes Nature World news.
‘Previously we thought emperor penguins didn’t breed on these ice shelves as they are too clumsy and couldn’t climb up the cliffs that form at their edges. But through satellite images we’ve now found evidence of several colonies that do breed on top of these ice shelves,’ explains Dr Peter Fretwell of NERC’s British Antarctic Survey (BAS), lead author on the paper. ‘We don’t know how the emperor penguins go up and down off the ice shelf. In one case they’re going up and down a 30 meter ice shelf but we don’t know if they’re jumping off it, sliding down or climbing because we haven’t been able to visit them,’ Fretwell says.
“But this was not the case in 2011 and 2012 when the sea ice did not form until a month after the breeding season began. During those years the birds moved up onto the neighbouring floating ice shelf to raise their young ones.”
This isn’t the first study that has explored the changes in penguin behavior. A related research by British Antarctic Survey scientists and colleagues had shown that these birds were abandoning their traditional breeding grounds for stable ice shelves. In fact, penguins are now climbing steep ice shelf walls, some 30 meters or nearly 100 feet high, to find a good breeding spot.
“The new behavior described this week in the journal PLoS One was observed in four of the 46 known emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica. These birds normally tend to breed on the sea ice because it gives them relatively easy access to waters where they hunt for food,” lead research Peter said in a press release. But with sea ice at reduced levels around Antarctica lately, Fretwell and his fellow researchers observed four groups of penguins which did not follow this normal behavior.
The behavior was observed via satellite. Another co-author, Gerald Kooyman of the Scripps Institution, said “it is likely that there are other nuances of the emperor penguin environment that will be detected sooner through their behavior than by more conventional means of measuring environmental changes.”
Over the past half-century, there has been a marked warming trend in the Antarctic Peninsula. Much of the rest of Antarctica has cooled during the last 30 years due to ozone depletion and other factors. Surface waters of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica have warmed and become less saline and precipitation in this region has increased.
Antarctica has experienced significant retreat and collapse of ice shelves as a result of regional warming. The loss of these ice shelves has few direct impacts on sea level and global climate. Because the ice shelves were floating, their melting does not directly add to sea level rise. They usually are replaced by sea-ice cover.