Emperor Penguins Climb Cliffs to Avoid Climate Change

When an animal species depends on sea ice for a good part of its life cycle, what are they going to do when that sea ice starts to melt and disappear due to climate change? Well for some colonies of emperor penguins, it appears the only solution is to move away from that melting sea ice – even if it means climbing up the very steep sides of floating ice shelves to find safer breeding sites.

The new behavior – described this week in the journal PLoS One – was observed in four of the 46 known emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica. These birds normally “tend to breed on the sea ice because it gives them relatively easy access to waters where they hunt for food,” lead research Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said in a press release. But with sea ice at reduced levels around Antarctica lately, Fretwell and his fellow researchers observed four groups of penguins which did not follow this normal behavior.

According to Fretwell, the sea ice in some locations in 2011 and 2012 was not strong enough to support the normal breeding colonies. “The sea ice did not form until a month after the breeding season began,” he said. “During those years the birds moved up onto the neighboring floating ice shelf to raise their young.” Two colonies moved during both years, while the remaining two each only moved one year.

It wasn’t an easy journey. Fretwell called it “a very difficult maneuver” which required the penguins to climb 30 meters (nearly 100 feet). Considering that emperor penguins are rather ungainly — or, as Fretwell puts it, “clumsy” — on land, that’s quite a feat.

While the news that the penguins had to abandon their normal breeding sites is disturbing, the researchers do point out a silver lining: the fact that they moved means they “may be capable of adapting their behavior” to fit a newly warming world.

Co-author Barbara Wienecke of the Australian Antarctic Division said that “these new findings are an important step forward in helping us understand what the future may hold for these animals, however, we cannot assume that this behavior is widespread in other penguin populations. The ability of these four colonies to relocate to a different environment — from sea ice to ice shelf — in order to cope with local circumstances, was totally unexpected. We have yet to discover whether or not other species may also be adapting to changing environmental conditions.”

The behavior was observed via satellite and probably would not have been noticed without that eye in the sky. Another co-author, Gerald Kooyman of the Scripps Institution, said “it is likely that there are other nuances of the emperor penguin environment that will be detected sooner through their behavior than by more conventional means of measuring environmental changes.”

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article by John Platt


Carrie-Anne Brown

sad news but thanks for sharing :)

Debbie Miller
Debbie Miller3 years ago

I hate it that these beautiful creatures must deal with this!

Masahiko E.
.3 years ago


Shawn S.
Shawn Smith3 years ago

Sad story, Need to take action on climate change.

gary p.
gary p3 years ago

James where do you get your facts from?

Polar Bear numbers - 5 x that of level at end of WW2

Read this article .... http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/about-polar-bears/what-scientists-say/are-polar-bear-populations-booming

I'm open monded about the issue and look forward to your response.

Edo R.
Edo R3 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Ans Weevers
Ans Weevers3 years ago

"The greatness of a nation and it's moral progress can be determined by the ways it treats it's animals."
Mahatma Gandhi

Biby C.
Biby C3 years ago

Moving up to higher ground where conditions are more ideal for breeding may sound like a good idea. However, that also means moving further away from their food source, the sea. If the planet continues to warm further, how much further would they have to move and how much further could they move?

And yes James R B, maybe you're right about CO2 being a life giving gas for plants. The problem is there are fewer and fewer plants and trees to breathe them. And acknowledging climate change does not mean we're denying the mess we're in due to the Fukushima incident.

People like you are the ones who need to wake up. And soon!

Pat P.
Pat P3 years ago

It never ceases to amaze me, when I hear of people either saying climate change isn't happening or that all animals will adapt to everything. Some animals may temporarily adapt--those that are generalists or where the conditional change is not too extreme, but many will not. Why are some people into so much denial? Why don't they care enough to believe the obvious evidence. Why do they justify what people are doing to contaminate our earth? I would much rather believe that we are destroying our world, so that something will be done to prevent it from worsening, than to ignore the reality and do nothing, and lose all that makes this world beautiful.

Shan D.
Shan D3 years ago

James, please get your head out of your wallet and do some real research. First of all, it's "climate change" - not "global warming." This does not mean it will never get cold, or never snow. In fact, this winter has seen the most snow in my city in many years. And we've had some pretty cold weeks this winter.

But overall, the climate is screwy. It's definitely not the same as when I was a child, or even in my teens (I'm 50). I look at pictures of formerly-snow capped mountains - and they're nearly bare!

Polar bear cubs are drowning because there's not enough ice in the Arctic. They're not strong enough to swim as far as adult bears. Or are you going to accuse the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of faking that footage?