From the “not happy feet” department and the “prospects look grim” climate model comes this mostly emotional bit of science PR. Please send money for more research too.
Finding new homes won’t help Emperor penguins cope with climate change
WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION
If projections for melting Antarctic sea ice through 2100 are correct, the vanishing landscape will strip Emperor penguins of their breeding and feeding grounds and put populations at risk. But like other species that migrate to escape the wrath of climate change, can these iconic animals be spared simply by moving to new locations?
According to new research led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), they cannot. Scientists report that dispersal may help sustain global Emperor penguin populations for a limited time, but, as sea ice conditions continue to deteriorate, the 54 colonies that exist today will face devastating declines by the end of this century. They say the Emperor penguin should be listed as an endangered species. The study was published in the June 6, 2017 edition of the journal Biological Conservation.
“We know from previous studies that sea ice is a key environmental driver of the life history of Emperor penguins, and that the fifty-percent declines we’ve seen in Pointe Géologie populations along the Antarctic coast since the 1950s coincide with warmer climate and sea ice decline,” said Stephanie Jenouvrier, WHOI biologist and lead author of the study. “But what we haven’t known is whether or not dispersal could prevent or even reverse future global populations. Based on this study, we conclude that the prospects look grim at the end of 2100, with a projected global population decline as low as 40 percent and up to 99 percent over three generations. Given this outlook, we argue that the Emperor penguin is deserving of protection under the Endangered Species Act.”
The relationship between Emperor penguins and sea ice is a fragile one: Too little sea ice reduces the availability of breeding sites and prey; too much sea ice means longer hunting trips for adults, which in turn means lower feeding rates for chicks. Only in the past few years have scientists become aware of the penguins’ ability to migrate to locations with potentially more optimal sea ice conditions.
“Before 2014, our studies of the impacts of climate change on these animals hadn’t factored in movement among populations,” said Jenouvrier. “But between then and now, a number of satellite imagery studies and genetic studies have confirmed their ability to disperse, so this was an important new variable to work into the equation.”
To determine whether migration will ultimately help Emperor penguins defend against population decline, Jenouvrier worked with mathematicians to develop a sophisticated demographic model of penguin colonies based on data collected at Pointe Géologie, one of the few places where long-term Emperor penguin studies have been conducted.
The model tracks the population connectivity between penguins as they take their chances moving to new habitats offering better sea ice conditions. “It’s like we’ve added roads between the cities the penguins live in and now get to see what happens when they travel between them,” she said.
A range of model inputs were used, including penguin dispersal distance, behavior and rate of migration. The model also factors in end-of-century sea ice forecasts from climate projection models to predict the fate of each colony.
According to Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, the new modeling technique is key to informing policy around “much-needed protections” for the Emperor penguin.
“Dr. Jenouvrier’s research has been at the forefront of advancing our understanding of how climate change is impacting these animals now and into the future,” she said. “Emperor penguins capture our imaginations because they are devoted parents and tough survivors. This work is another wake-up call that we need to make rapid cuts in carbon pollution if emperor penguins are going to have a future.”
One surprising aspect of the study, according to Jenouvrier, was the wide range of penguin responses to various dispersal scenarios represented in the model. In some cases, dispersal boosted populations whereas in other cases, it led to dramatic declines.
“We saw sustained populations through 2036, at which point there was an ‘ecological rescue’ that reversed the anticipated decline expected without dispersion for about a ten-year period,” she explained. “During that time, the penguins made wise choices in terms of selecting the highest-quality habitat they could reach. But the ‘rescue’ was only short-lived, and started plummeting in 2046. When we averaged out all the scenarios, the model painted a very grim picture through 2100, regardless of how far penguins travelled or how wise their habitat selections were.”
The researchers conclude that while dispersal can be a very potent response to climate change in certain cases, the projected accelerated pace at which ice is melting in Antarctica makes for a tricky dynamic. Climate change isn’t stationary, so even if Emperor penguins move to locations with better sea ice conditions, those conditions could change dramatically from one year to the next.
The new findings will help inform a scientific status review launched in 2014 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aimed at determining if the Emperor Penguin should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Wolf views the study as confirmation that climate change is putting the animals in danger, and as such, agrees with Jenouvrier that protection is in order. “Decisions to protect species under the Act must be based on science and not politics, so we hope the Fish and Wildlife Service will heed the science and give Emperor penguins the protections they deserve,” she said.
Jenouvrier agrees, and believes that adding Emperor penguins to the Endangered Species list could help accomplish a number of things. For example, it’s likely to trigger new fishing regulations in the Southern Ocean and highlight the need for new global conservation strategies. It may also help increase public awareness and “sensitize people to the impacts of climate change” which in turn could help reduce emissions. And, it may spur the need for more studies of Emperor penguins — something she’s already eyeing for the future.
“While we’ve learned that dispersal doesn’t change the ultimate fate of these animals,” she said, “we need to better understand the dynamics of what happens when they disperse. To do this, we’ll need to tag penguins from several colonies and monitor them. Eventually, we also want to understand if populations may eventually adapt to sea ice change, and more generally, how they will respond to the changing landscape in terms of breeding and other life history stages.”
This research was supported by WHOI, Mission Blue and The French National Research Agency.
Gosh, it’s just tragic, right?
Back in 2012, it was reported:
Emperor penguins in Antarctica are far more plentiful than previously thought, a study that used extremely high-resolution imagery snapped by satellites has revealed.
“It surprised us that we approximately doubled the population estimate,” said Peter Fretwell, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey and lead author of a paper published today in the journal PLoS One.
Fretwell said that in contrast to previous estimates, which put emperor penguin numbers somewhere between 270,000 and 350,000 birds, the new research counted 595,000 birds.
Despite that good news, plus more colonies being found, the IUCN “redlist” still lists them as “near threatened” even though the first count in 2009 was wrong, by their own admission:
A survey of satellite images from 2009 found 46 colonies containing c.238,000 breeding pairs, suggesting a total of c.595,000 individuals (Fretwell et al. 2012). Since then, a further seven colonies have been discovered bringing the total number to 53 (Fretwell, pers. com.). The global population estimate has not yet been updated.
Why? Climate models of course!
This species has been uplisted to Near Threatened because it is projected to undergo a moderately rapid population decline over the next three generations owing to the effects of projected climate change. However, it should be noted that there is considerable uncertainty over future climatic changes and how these will impact the species.
Aptenodytes forsteri has a circumpolar range, restricted when breeding to the coast of Antarctica where breeding colonies occur right around the continent (Fretwell et al. 2012). At least ¾ of the breeding colonies of this species are vulnerable to predicted changes in sea ice conditions and 1/5 may be quasi-extinct by 2100 (Jenouvrier et al. 2014). There are regional variations in population declines but colonies located north of 70°S have a probability of 46% to decrease by up to >90% by the end of this century (Jenouvrier et al.2014).
Conservation status: Near Threatened (Population stable) according to the Encyclopedia of Life
So now four years later, thanks to the same researcher (Jenouvrier) who got them on the “near threatened status, that doubled population faces a certain doom, according to “projections”. One wonders if their “projections” are any better than the ability to count populations from satellite imagery in 2009.
But it seems the researchers goal to do more banding of penguins, might do more harm than good, as Jim Steele reported on WUWT:
There is a much more parsimonious explanation for the DuDu penguins’ decline. Between 1967 and 1980 researchers from DuDu attached flipper bands to breeding penguins, and that is exactly when the penguins began to desert the colony as seen in Figure A. By the time the much-ballyhooed “warm spike” occurred in the winter of 1981, the colony had already declined by 50%.
Placing a band on an Emperor Penguin is no easy task. Male Emperors must conserve energy in order to survive their 4 month winter fast, and tussles with researchers consumed their precious energy. Emperors must also huddle in order to conserve vital warmth (as seen below in the picture from Robertson 2014). But huddling was disrupted whenever researchers “drove” the penguins into files of 2 or 3 individuals in order to systematically read bands or more accurately count the population. “Droving” could also cause the males to drop their eggs that are so precariously balanced on their feet.
When DuDu’s flipper banding finally ended in 1980, coincidentally the Emperors’ “survival rate” immediately rebounded. Survival rates remained high for the next four years despite extreme shifts in weather and sea-ice extent. However, survival rates suddenly plummeted once again in 1985, despite an above-normal pack-ice extent.Coincidentally, that is when the French began building an airstrip at DuDu, and to that end they dynamited and joined three small islands.
Maybe the authors were listening to ‘ship of fools” organizers, Chris Turney, who claimed in February 2016 that 150,000 penguins simply disappeared, so they must have died. https://wattsupwiththat.com/2016/02/13/chris-turney-penguins-dont-migrate-theyre-dying/
Oh, wait, never mind, they “walked away”: https://wattsupwiththat.com/2016/02/16/the-penguin-strikes-back/
And last year, WUWT reported (thanks to David Middleton) that based on the RCP 8.5 model, penguins would be “exterminated”…unless of course you actually read the paper, something the headline generators don’t count on:
Perhaps rather than putting the 600,000 strong Emperor penguins on the “endangered list” they could be listed under the “climate horror stories that just won’t die” list, like the Pika.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the Antarctic sea ice extent max-min difference (the minimum usually occurs in February) has been on the rise, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center:
Note: within five minute of publication, the paragraph preceding the graph of Antarctic sea ice was edited for clarity and accuracy.