Penguin Chicks Frozen by Global Warming?

July 2, 2008

This January—deep summer in Antarctica—explorer Jon Bowermaster suffered through a five-day stretch of torrential rains on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The same cannot be said for thousands of downy penguin chicks.

Epic rains are unusual in Antarctica, even in summer, said Bowermaster, who had been in the region on an expedition funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council.

With daytime temperatures above freezing, the rains soaked young Adélie and gentoo penguins not yet equipped with water-repellent feathers (see video below).

At night, when the mercury dipped below freezing, the wet chicks froze.

(Related: "Adelie Penguins Extinct in a Decade in Some Areas?" [December 28, 2007].)

"Many, many, many of them—thousands of them—were dying," Bowermaster said.

The experience, he added, painted a clear and grim picture of the impact of global climate change.

"It's not just melting ice," he said. "It's actually killing these cute little birds that are so popular in the movies."

The freezing of chicks is just one example of how human activity is endangering about two thirds of all penguin species, according to a new paper based on decades of research and observations.

The conservation biologist behind the paper, Dee Boersma of the University of Washington, points out some of the many ways penguins are suffering, such as by ingesting oil from spills, by being run over by tourists, by having their nesting times confused by climate change, and by losing their prey to changing currents.

For nearly 25 years Boersma has studied a population of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo, Argentina, with partial funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Continued on Next Page >>


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