“(Quentin) Tarantino does ‘Happy Feet,’ with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach.”
That’s how Rod Downie, one expert from the World Wildlife Federation, described the scene in a news release after thousands of baby penguins starved to death in the cold in Terre Adélie, Antarctica, casualties of a “devastating” breeding season in which a colony of 36,000 adults produced only two surviving chicks.
“Adélie penguins are one of the hardiest and most amazing animals on our planet. This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins,” said Downie, head of polar programmes at WWF-UK, in a news release.
An unusually heavy deposit of sea ice in the summer forced adults to trudge much farther away to find food, leaving their babies behind. Nearly every chick starved to death in the freezing cold, Downie said in the release.
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“The chicks are undernourished, so they are really weak, and they can be starving to death if the parents don't come back with food for them,” biologist Yan Ropert-Coudert told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
It’s not even the worst disaster to afflict the colony. Four years ago, not a single chick survived the breeding season as a sudden heavy rain and rapid drop in temperature froze the babies to death, the WWF said in its release.
Still, Adélie penguins live all along the Antarctic coast and are generally not considered in danger. They are listed as of “least concern” from the International Union for the Conservation of Animals. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some worries.
A study from the University of Delaware found that about a third of Adélie colonies could be in decline by 2060, mostly as a result of climate change, which is bringing warmer seas and more rain.
“For the moment, sea ice is increasing and this is a problem for this species as it pushes the feeding place – the sea ice edge – farther away from their nesting place,” Ropert-Coudert, who led a major study on the previous event in which no chicks survived, told The Guardian. “If it shrinks it would help but if it shrinks too much then the food chain they rely on may be impacted. Basically, as a creature of the sea ice they need an optimum sea-ice cover to thrive.”
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources will meet on Oct. 16 to discuss the creation of a new Marine Protected Area that would prevent krill fisheries from operating near the area, which could compete with the penguins for already limited food.
“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,” Downie said in the WWF statement. “So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new Marine Protected Area for the waters off East Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins.”