Climate change, also known as global warming, is an increase in the world’s surface temperature or sea surface temperature. The rapid increase in temperature will severely affect the inhabitants of polar regions. For example, polar bear and some seal populations are projected to lose a great deal of their habitat by the year 2100. Penguins are also among these at-risk animals as they are a group of animals that rely on a specific temperature that assists in their way of life. The penguin population is in danger due to their sensitivity to climate change, which will ultimately affect their reproduction schedules, food sources and migratory patterns.
The Adelie penguins are primarily found living in icy areas, and are known as ice obligate creatures. Their breeding process is partially dictated by how long the days are. As the days get longer, these penguins produce hormones that change their behavior. This will lead to an increase of their fat storage, which is required for the extended periods of time during migration. Because timing is influenced by length of day, if temperatures are altered it will not only affect their breeding schedule, but also general survival of the species. Breeding is also dictated by how precise their environment is. Having an altered environment can affect the arrival, body weight and nutrition before breeding, as well as timing of egg laying and egg size. Specifically speaking, if the seasons turn to summer and the days get shorter, the urge to breed lessens (Ainley 2002). After their storage of food, the penguins begin a fasting period and couples form a bond where they create offspring. The female lays exactly two eggs and incubates them for a little over 30 days before she trades off with the male penguin. Any alteration to this process can negatively affect the future generations of penguins. If there is a delay, the Adelie’s will not be able to complete their post breeding migration. If they are not able to complete this process, their molt will not be on time therefore trapping them on solid ice, which can cease breeding for the following season.
Emperor penguins are a type of penguin that breed based on a very specific schedule; therefore are subject to climate change. The male and female penguins take turns going off to feed, then travel 60 to 100 miles to nest and breed in the month of May. They only produce a single egg in the summer months of June and July and the male incubates it until it hatches in August. After the babies are hatched, their feeding begins in fall between September and October. There is concern that chicks hatched late in the season will not have the time needed to fully develop. The Emperor penguins’ wings have three layers containing dense, oily and water-proof feathers that allow them to swim efficiently. If they are not given time to mature properly, the chicks may not develop the protection they will need as time goes by. Due to the exactness of this schedule, if the sea surface temperature were to increase, it can put at risk the single egg from reaching adulthood.
The Adelie penguins and Emperor penguins share a specific diet consisting of small fish and krill. Often humorous, this process consists of them clumsily tripping over ice and snow mounds, making their way to an opening in the ice, where they dive into the water to eat. Krill are a small, shrimp-like sea creature that tends to deposit closer to pack ice. Pack ice, also known as polar ice caps, are larger pieces of ice drifting on the water. Increased sea surface temperature will lead to reduced amounts of pack ice which the krill require for a safe haven to reproduce and live. This in turn will lead to a decline in a major food source for both of these types of penguins. The other small fish that the penguins consume are also at risk, as the krill are a major food source for many parts of the food chain.
The Adelie and Emperor penguins are not the only breed to be affected by climate change; there is also the Fairy penguin. Appropriately named, Fairy penguins are the smallest species of penguins. Luckily, they have shown to adapt quickly to forced change. In 1982, six penguins were taken towards the end of their molting period and had interaction with humans. During this period, they were exposed to a change in diet over differing temperatures throughout the changing of seasons. The data showed that there was a correlation between egg laying rates and sea surface temperature. It also leads to lower breeding successes between generations.
The Adelie, Emperior and Fairy penguins all have a similar characteristic; they are victims of climate change. They all have a regimen that is being compromised and can eventually lead to their demise. Food consumption, migration patterns and reproduction are all essential to their way of life. The krill that they eat are also at risk due to change in sea level. Migration patterns will change due to a rise in temperature. There is hope that some species will be able to adjust to the climate changes, however there is no telling what the future will hold.
Ainley, D. 2002. The adelie penguin. 1st ed. Columbia University Press, New York, New York.