Why Emperor Penguins Have Gained A New Unwanted Status

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The emperor penguin population in Antarctica is in significant danger because of climate change and alarm bells are sounding.Photo credit: IHERPHOTO2 / Shutterstock.com

The emperor penguin population in Antarctica is in significant danger and alarm bells are sounding. Diminishing sea ice levels, the result of climate change, have caused the crisis.

In hopes of avoiding the extinction of the emperor penguin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is granting the species protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

About The Emperor Penguin

The emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species. The white-bellied, orange-marked, flightless birds inhabit much of Antarctica. Adults can weigh as much as 88 pounds and are as tall as 45 inches. Males and females are similar in plumage and size, although, males are slightly larger than females.

Females lay one egg each breeding season. Males incubate the eggs on their feet and under their plumage for 2 months, while the females go to sea to feed. Once the egg hatches, males and females alternate between chick-rearing and food gathering until the chick can regulate its temperature. Then, both adults forage simultaneously to supply enough food for their growing chick. Chicks leave the colony after about 150 days, returning at 4 years old and breeding for the first time at age 5.

Emperor Penguins Are Endangered

Currently, emperor penguin populations appear to be stable. However, the species is in danger of extinction in the near future in a significant portion of its range. A study last year predicted that, under current trends, nearly all emperor penguin colonies would become “quasi-extinct” by 2100.

The rise of carbon dioxide emissions means Earth’s temperature is rising. As sea ice disappears because of climate change, the penguins lose needed space to breed and raise chicks and to avoid predators. Since newborns are usually born in the late summer, with less sea ice, they could be susceptible to death in the freezing waters because they haven’t had time to grow adult feathers. In addition, their key food source, krill, is declining because of melting ice, ocean acidification, and industrial fishing. Thus, climate change is endangering the emperor penguin.

New Protections, More Funding

Though emperor penguins are not found naturally in the U.S., the endangered species protections will help increase funding for conservation efforts. U.S. agencies will also now have to evaluate how fisheries and greenhouse gas-emitting projects will affect the population, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

With emperor penguins protected under the ESA, federal agencies must now reduce threats to the population, such as reducing the fishing of primary penguin food like krill and squid. Dubbed “the world’s strongest environmental law focused on preventing extinction and facilitating recovery of imperiled species” by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the ruling also promotes international conservation strategies and research on how to stabilize the population.

The final ruling on the emperor penguin’s threatened status will be published on October 26 and will go into effect 30 days later.

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