The population of Emperor penguins in the Weddell Sea, which was previously accounted for tens of thousands of birds, is on the verge of collapse, according to a study published today in the Antarctic Science. Satellite images of the area show that, although in 2016 the colony consisted of 25 000 animals in the past three years, these figures dropped to almost zero.
“We have never seen breeding failure on such a scale in 60 years. It’s unusual to observe a complete breeding failure in such a large colony,” said study author Phil Tretan, head of the British Antarctic Service.
“Since we know little about the population trends of emperor penguins in most colonies, this was unexpected,” explained Di Burssma, an ecologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who studies penguins who did not participate in research.
The decline of the so-called Halley Bay colony is largely due to the loss of a large number of emperor penguin chicks who drowned in 2016 after the sea ice on which they lived was destroyed by a storm.
“The sea ice that has formed since 2016 was not strong enough,” said Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Research in Cambridge, one of the authors of this study.
Absence of reproduction after such a catastrophe is “unprecedented.” Many adult inhabitants of the colony made a 55-kilometer journey to the neighboring colony, the number of which grew 10 times with the reception of migrants.
The loss of the Halley Bay colony is worrisome because researchers did not expect such a sharp decline in sea ice in this area of Antarctica.
“I thought the Weddell Sea would be one of the last places we see it,” wrote Phil Tretan on a official site of his research.