Emperor Penguins Could Survive Global Warming, Study Indicates

The flightless fowls don't actually breed in the same place every year, scientists found to their surprise: They will move if they have to.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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An Emperor penguin that got lost and wound up on a beach in New Zealand.
An Emperor penguin that got lost and wound up on a beach in New Zealand.Credit: AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Mankind is well on its way to causing a sixth great extinction, scientists now agree. Hunting aside, one reason for the anticipated calamity is the difficulty species are likely to have adjusting to changing environments in a warming world. Yet one species that seems born to the challenge is the majestic Emperor penguin, which does not – as previously thought – cling robotically to the same breeding ground year after year.

Emperors are the biggest of all penguins, rising to as much as 1.2 meters in height and weighing as much as a small Great Dane – a good 45 kilos. This applies to both males and females. Like its brethren penguin species, the Emperor has a white tummy but is marked by a buttery yellow chest and an orange stripe along its beak.

In winter, the towering, flightless birds waddle en masse over the icepack to their breeding colonies, which is precisely where a scientific team from the University of Minnesota had some good news.

What they found is that over three years, a group of penguins they were tracking changed the location of their breeding grounds six times. Ergo, explains lead author Michelle LaRue, they do not in fact return to the same breeding ground.

This is good news because of the warming ocean temperature is causing ice to recede, which will inevitably mean the loss of penguin breeding sites. Apparently, that won't matter to the fowls.

By the way, the scientists did not spend the Arctic winter, bodies wrapped in the f-word, heroically tracking the birds on foot. They used satellite imaging to keep an eye on the colonies.

Their first inkling of the birds' adaptability was that a colony they'd been tracking for 60 years, that was featured in the documentary "March of the Penguins," seemed to have shrunk in recent years. At first they thought the birds were dying off; then they found the "missing" ones simply relocated. And despite the changes that the warming seas are having on the northern coasts, the birds still have plenty of places to relocate to if necessary, the scientists say.

A young emperor penguin: He may prove flexible on the location of breeding.Credit: AP

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