Baby Penguins drowned when ice melted

25 August, 2023

In several colonies of emperor penguins, almost all the chicks died when the sea ice in Antarctica melted last year.

– They probably drowned, or floated away on ice floes and starved to death when their parents couldn’t find them, says researcher Norman Ratcliffe.

In a new study, researchers at, among others, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have studied emperor penguins, the largest penguin species, which depend on stable sea ice during the relatively long breeding period.

The researchers followed five penguin colonies during the years 2018-2022 in the Bellinghausen area of Antarctica by studying satellite images, as the species lives in inaccessible areas.

For four of the five colonies, nesting came to nothing last year, according to the results presented in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. In some areas, almost all the ice melted before the chicks were ready to swim and fend for themselves.

The map shows five colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctica studied in 2018-2022, as well as the changes in the sea ice. Graphics: Anders Humlebo/TT

The ice has greatly reduced

Most likely, the vast majority of penguin chicks in these colonies died in 2022, according to Norman Ratcliffe, one of the researchers at BAS.

-In one of the colonies, the melting ice prevented the parent penguins from climbing onto the ice shelf and caring for their young. In the other three colonies, the sea ice had broken up right under the chicks, says Ratcliffe.

Similar events have happened in the past, but according to the researchers, this is the first time it has been observed on such a large scale.

-This is likely to become more common in a warming Antarctica, says Ratcliffe.

The recent major changes regarding the ice in Antarctica have caused many scientists to react. In mid-July this year, the ice cover had shrunk by an area almost the size of five Sweden, compared to the average value for the same month in 1981-2010.

Why Antarctic Sea ice has decreased so sharply in recent years, scientists do not yet know for sure. But in the long term, the climate models point to global warming affecting the spread of ice.

“A Bitter Foretaste”

If the sea ice in Antarctica continues to decrease at the same rate as now, the emperor penguins are estimated to be so few at the turn of the next century that they are approaching extinction. In any case, if human emissions of greenhouse gases and the rate of global warming continue in the same direction as now. That’s what Andreas Nord says, who is a docent at Lund University and who researches how animals are affected by climate change.

He points out that the population of emperor penguins is stable right now.

-But this study gives a bitter foretaste of what the future may mean for these animals, says Andreas Nord.

The emperor penguin is the largest species in the penguin family. It can be around 115 centimeters long and weigh up to 40 kilos. It is only found on the Antarctic pack ice and in the sea around it. The food consists of fish, squid and shrimp.

Up to 5,000 adults and chicks can huddle together for warmth, and they take turns standing at the end.

The emperor penguin can dive down to about 250 meters and stay below the surface for up to 18 minutes.

They can live up to 20 years and may be the only bird that never sets foot on land as they even breed on frozen seas.

Sources: National Encyclopedia, British Antarctic Survey.

Text: Hanna Odelfors/TT
Photo: Peter Fretwell
Graphics: Anders Humlebo/TT

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