Penguins Marching to Oblivion

Penguins, those lovable characters featured in the recent National Geographic-sponsored movie, March of the Penguins, may soon be marching into oblivion, their shuffling gait, fireplug silhouette, endearing antics and formal-dress feathers lost to generations of earth's inhabitants forever.


Like polar bears - those less endearing but more magnificent denizens of frozen wastes - penguins are threatened by global warming. Of the approximately 17 species generally recognized by scientists, at least 12 are in danger. These species, from the king penguin to the emperor penguin, include the Adélie, chinstrap (reportedly the most numerous), rockhopper, macaroni, royal, Fiordland crested, erect-crested, Snares Island, yellow-eyed, Magellanic, Humboldt, fairy, African and Galapagos penguins. Some also include the white-flippered fairy, or little blue, penguin. These penguins live exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, in places like Antarctica, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Africa, New Zealand, and Peru.

Penguins are birds of the order Sphenisciformes. Because they're not very fast on their feet or well camouflaged, they live on remote islands and isolated portions of continents where they are safe from larger predators. Their black and white coloring is ideal in the ocean, where their white bellies look like ice to the leopard seals, sea lions and orca whales that feed on them. On land, these colors are like waving a flag, and penguins are vulnerable to a number of predators, including ferrets, weasels, wild cats and foxes. Their eggs are eaten by snakes and birds. A baby penguin can fit in the palm of one's hand, and - though not many species of penguins mate for life - they generally return to their original hatching grounds to breed and lay their eggs.

In 2006, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking that 12 species of penguins be added to the list of threatened and endangered species. According to the Center, each of these species faces such diverse threats as habitat destruction, introduced predators, marine pollution (especially oil spills), overfishing by man (which depletes food supplies), direct hunting by humans, and - most of all - climate change.

The 12 threatened species are the emperor penguin, southern rockhopper penguin, northern rockhopper penguin, Fiordland crested penguin, snares crested penguin, erect-crested penguin, macaroni penguin, royal penguin, white-flippered penguin, yellow-eyed penguin, African penguin, and Humboldt penguin.

"These penguin species will march right into extinction unless greenhouse gas pollution is controlled," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center's Climate, Air, and Energy Program.

Her remark is not an exaggeration. The emperor penguin colony at Pointe Geologie - the group featured in the movie - has declined by 70 percent. This decline is based on a 2004 study by the British Antarctic Survey which shows that krill, an essential penguin food source, is currently less than a fifth of what it was in the 1970s. Oddly, the march of the penguins to extinction has gone largely unnoticed by the media. The movie, released in 2005, did a great deal to warm human hearts toward this oddly flightless bird, but little to inform the public about the threat from climate change to their survival.

Habitat loss is largely the result of housing development on inhabited islands, and affects a number of varieties, primarily the little blue, or fairy penguin. Once land is cleared and houses are built, weeds take over the local vegetation. People trample the burrows, the invasive weeds cause soil erosion and burrow collapse, and rabbits co-opt the remaining burrows. Elsewhere, tourism disturbs both Galapagos habitat and breeding, and the introduction of croplands deprives the yellow-eyed penguin of its forest and shrub habitat in New Zealand.    

Commercial overfishing is another problem. On the Antarctic seas, this practice, directed at both krill and fish, is placing extreme pressure on penguin populations to find enough sustenance to support themselves and their offspring. It may also lead to the collapse of the entire seagoing food chain, since krill are at the bottom supporting the rest of the chain. Add to this the issue of warming seas, which displace fish species north or south, ocean acidification (a consequence of global warming that supports algae but not krill), and marine pollution like oil spills, and penguins face an uphill battle to survival.

Oil spills, while not necessarily the most critical factor, are nonetheless the most dramatic one. In September of 1991, a tanker spill off the coast of the Valdes Peninsula, Argentina, left an estimated 24,000 Magellanic penguins coated with crude oil during their annual migration from Brazil to nesting grounds in the Punta Tombo region.

The culprit was never identified, and never came forth to admit guilt, even though only three companies - Exxon, Shell and the state oil company, Yacimientos - have tankers in that region. Since then, the shipping lane has been moved 25 miles further offshore. Even so, empty tankers still deliver pollution in the form of contaminated ballast water, which is discharged directly into the ocean before taking on fresh loads of crude oil.

In July of 2000, the oil tanker "Treasure" (pdf) sank off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, leaving behind a huge burden of oil. Rescue efforts began immediately, but even so, 40 percent of the African penguins in the area were contaminated. The 15,000 chicks that were either lost or abandoned by their contaminated parents were airlifted to rescue facilities.

The list goes on; penguins continue to die. In July of 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded to the Center for Biological Diversity by noting that protection might be warranted for 10 of the species, and promised to conduct a review. It declined to include the snares crested penguin and royal penguin. At that time, the only penguin protected under the Act was the Galapagos penguin.

Meanwhile, the people who care do what they can. Lewis Halsey and his colleagues are using king penguins on the Crozet archipelago to count fish to determine how low food stocks are. Since 2002, Halsey and friends have implanted about 50 tiny computer chips into king penguins to monitor their locations, the temperature at the backs of their throats (which determines how well they are feeding), and the depth at which they are fishing. All these details, plus penguins' heart rates, tell the team how much stress the penguins must undergo to find a meal.

Elsewhere, researchers are using "smart" cameras to monitor African penguin populations without disturbing them. These cameras, operating in a program called the 'Penguin Recognition Project', use computer-aided diagnostics to track penguins based on their unique chest markings (much the same way observers now track whales by their flippers). The project, supported by Earthwatch and the Leverhulme Trust, hopes to track the further decline of the African penguin, whose numbers have fallen from more than a million in 1900 to fewer than 170,000 today.

In March of 2007, the U.S. Interior Department adopted new regulations which substantially weakened the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. In February of 2008, lacking any response from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the status of the 12 species of endangered penguins, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a suit against the Bush administration. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared a report in May which showed that the findings for endangerment listing were "substantial" (72 Fed. Reg. 37695), but argued that, "The Endangered Species Act "is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy."

This backpedaling is also the view of President Bush, who - facing the end of his tenure as the worst environmental president in U.S. history - apparently wants to rest on his laurels and leave the rescue of the natural world to the next administration.

happy feet

Environmentalists could live with that, if not for the fact that the price of oil, and the push for more through offshore drilling, now threatens coastlines around the world and predicts that we will be unable to wean ourselves from our addiction before earth reaches what NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called the tipping point. A point that Hansen insists we may have already passed. In which case, it's probably too late for penguins anyway, though some consider it karmic retribution that man is likely next on the list.

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  • Posted on July 25, 2008. Listed in:

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