New Study Reveals Emperor Penguins Can Relocate and Adapt to Climate Change

First Posted: Jun 20, 2014 12:43 PM EDT

As our climate changes, species need to adapt to a shifting environment. Now, scientists have found out that emperor penguins, at least, may be more adaptable than previously thought. It turns out that these penguins are more willing to locate in the face of changing temperatures.

Previous research seemed to indicate that emperor penguins were philopatric, which means that they return to the same location to nest each year. Yet it turns out that this may not be the case.

The researchers examined the colony features in "March of the Penguins," a movie documenting emperor penguins. This colony, called Pointe Geologie, has been studied for more than 60 years. Yet in recent years, scientists have been concerned about how receding sea ice might impact the penguins. In fact, over five years in the late 1970s, the Southern Ocean warmed and at the same time, the colony declined by half; this decline was attributed to decreased survival rates.

Yet it appears that emperor penguins can adapt. The researchers found six instances in just three years in which emperor penguins did not return to the same location to breed. They also found other colonies using satellite imaging.

"Our research showing that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins," said Michelle LaRue, one of the researchers, in a news release. "If we assume that these birds come back to the same locations every year, without fail, these new colonies we see on satellite images wouldn't make any sense. These birds didn't just appear out of thin air-they had to have come from somewhere else. This suggests that emperor penguins move among colonies. That means we need to revisit how we interpret population changes and the causes of those changes."

The findings reveal that these birds may be far more adaptable than originally thought. This could be good news in the face of climate change as the Earth continues to warm.

"It's possible that birds have moved away from Pointe Geologie to these other spots and that means that maybe those banded birds didn't die," said LaRue. "If we want to accurately conserve the species, we really need to know the basics."

The findings are published in the journal Ecography.

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