Climate Change Threatening Penguin Population in Argentina, Study Finds

First Posted: Jan 30, 2014 08:45 AM EST

Penguin population in Argentina faces a grim future as extreme weather conditions are killing a great number of young penguin chicks. This is expected to worsen in the coming years, a new study claims.

Researchers at the University of Washington state that climate change is having a drastic impact on the world's biggest colony of Magellanic penguin. A 27 year study on these seabirds revealed that rainstorms and heat accounted for 7 percent of the penguin chick deaths of the total 67 percent dying every year. Usually, about 40 percent of them died of starvation but in some years, climatic conditions killed about 43 to 50 percent of the chicks.

"It's the first long-term study to show climate change having a major impact on chick survival and reproductive success," said Boersma, who has led field work.

The field work was conducted halfway up the Atlantic coast of Argentina at Punta Tombo, where 200,000 pairs of penguins show up during September - February to reproduce.

Studies in the past focused on the effect of single storms or heat waves on reproduction consequences. However, the current study highlights how the climate change directly affects penguins.

Penguin chicks usually have underdeveloped waterproof feathers. They struggle to battle the rain and eventually die due to hypothermia. Also, the absence of the feathers doesn't allow them to get into the water during scorching summers.

The study says that drastic change in climate is a new leading cause for penguin chick death. Researchers fear that as the climate change worsens, starvation and weather conditions will hamper penguin population.

According to the scientists, starving chicks are more susceptible to die in a storm. Since no immediate actions taken can drastically lower the rate of climate change, providing these penguins with sufficient food can cut down the rate of death. This can be achieved by creating a marine protected reserve with strict regulations on fishing. This place can be used for foraging activities.

Also, there has been a steep increase in rainfall and storm per breeding season. It was observed that between 1983 and 2010, the number of storms increased at the breeding site. This event harmed the young chicks that were less than 25 days old as they were most vulnerable to dying in the storm.

"We're going to see years where almost no chicks survive if climate change makes storms bigger and more frequent during vulnerable times of the breeding season as climatologists predict," Ginger Rebstock, UW research scientist and the co-author of the paper said.

The finding was published in the journal PLOS One.

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