We Just Got Our First State of Antarctic Penguins Report (And We Have Some Work to Do)

How are penguins faring as the Antarctic warms? A new report has the answers. . Li Hui Chen/Shutterstock

Everyone loves penguins. The waddling, tuxedo-clad seabirds steal the heart of anyone who observes them for any length of time. Unfortunately, we may not have much longer to watch them if current trends continue.

Oceanites released the first-of-its-kind report on the state of Antarctica's penguins. After sifting through data from 660 locations across the continent, as well as 101 sources of on-the-ground colony counts and satellite photo analyses, the researchers found that there has been a striking decline in the populations of Adélie and chinstrap penguin species. The report also identifies future changes to these two species, as well as emperor and gentoo penguin species.

Changing ocean temperatures change the food supply and nesting habitat for penguins, which can cause trouble for populations.
Changing ocean temperatures alter the food supply and nesting habitat for penguins, which can cause trouble for populations. 2j architecture/Shutterstock

The report notes that in the Antarctic Peninsula, which has warmed over the last several decades, Adélie penguin populations have plummeted. Chinstrap penguin species have also declined. But in areas of the East Antarctic and in the Ross Sea, Adélie penguin populations are increasing. This seems to point to warming oceans — a result of climate change — as a significant factor in the survival of Adélie penguins.

Oceanites founder and president Ron Naveen stated in a press release, "In one generation, I have personally witnessed the precipitous decline of once abundant Adélie and chinstrap penguin populations. These iconic birds are literally canaries in the coal mine. They provide critical insights into the dramatic changes taking place in the Antarctic. What's happening to penguin populations can have important implications for all of us."

On the flip side, in the warmed Antarctic Peninsula, gentoo penguins are increasing in number. It seems they have adapted more easily to eating more fish when there is less krill to feast on. The finding shows that some penguins are adjusting to the changing conditions while others are not.

Scientific American notes, "Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist at the University of Minnesota, confirms the importance of sea ice for organisms like krill. 'Krill need sea ice to survive,' she explains. LaRue says there is a strong correlation between reduced sea ice and decreased krill populations."

The article goes on to point out that not only are penguins dependent on fish and krill, but "they are also important prey for leopard seals. Naveen hopes this report will be used by organizations involved in Antarctic management and conservation."

As predator and prey, penguins are critical to the Antarctic ecosystem.

Two gentoo penguins waddle across the rocks. This species seems to be adapting to changing ocean conditions.
Two gentoo penguins waddle across the rocks. This species seems to be adapting to changing ocean conditions. Aleksei Romanov/Shutterstock

The data was compiled from a variety of sources, including direct observation and satellite imagery.

"We can now use advanced satellite technology and data analyses to better understand how these penguin populations are changing," said associate professor Heather Lynch, who directs The Lynch Lab for Quantitative Ecology at Stony Brook University, which provides critical scientific expertise for the report. "By integrating expert biological field surveys, satellite imagery analyses, and citizen science, we can further enhance our ability to understand the changes taking place in an incredibly important world we are just learning about."

Naveen and Oceanites team members are part of a new documentary called "The Penguin Counters," which shows how the group maps out penguin colonies in such an unforgiving environment as Antarctica. Check out a trailer in the video below.