According to a recent study, despite being well-adapted to very cold Arctic conditions, Emperor penguins are actually relatively sensitive to temperature changes, raising concerns for the species given ongoing global warming.
More on new Emperor penguin study
The researchers were examining how how climate change has impacted the highly cold-adapted penguin. The data suggests that 30,000 years during the last ice age, there were only three Emperor populations.
However, as the Antarctic climate has relatively warmed up since the last ice age, the Emperors have expanded and there are now seven times as many of the penguins in scores of locations.
Based on the genetic diversity of both modern and ancient penguin populations, researchers from the universities of Tasmania, Southampton and Oxford in Britain, and the Australian Antarctic Division created a model showing the Emperor penguin population over time.
The study found that Emperor populations grew over the last 12,000 years as temperatures rose by 15 degrees Celsius and as sea ice in Antarctica began to shrink.
Statement from joint lead researcher
Joint lead researcher for the project, University of Tasmania graduate student Jane Younger noted: “We were actually really surprised by this. What we had thought was that the ice age, because there was so much more sea ice which they need (to breed) and because they are so cold-adapted, that this would probably be a good thing for them.”
The scientists theorize a population of Emperors survived in the Ross Sea because an area of ocean was always kept free of sea ice by wind and currents.
“The Ross Sea is probably really important,” said Younger, referring to the Pacific Ocean side of Antarctica which is the world’s most intact marine ecosystem.
“They have survived there for at least the last 30,000 years and even when the environment has been really unsuitable in a lot of other places the Ross Sea has been kind of a safe haven for them. The Ross Sea seems to come up time and time again as a really important part of the Antarctic ecosystem.”