The Climate Change Winners: Adelie Penguins Benefit from Warmer Global Temperatures

First Posted: Apr 04, 2013 01:34 PM EDT

There were bound to be some winners when it came to climate change. Now, new research reveals that Adelie penguins may actually benefit from warmer global temperatures--a stark contrast to some other polar species.

Adelie penguins live on the Antarctic continent. Smaller than Emperor penguins, they stand a little over two feet tall and feed on tiny, shrimp-like krill along with fish and squid. While far more at home in the sea, the penguins can still cover long, overland distances--as much as 31 miles before sheets of ice break up. Every spring they form fast colonies and build nests lined with small stones.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, used a mix of old and new technology in order to make its conclusions. The researchers studied a combination of aerial photography beginning in 1958 and modern satellite imagery from the 2000s in order to study the population size of the Adelie penguin colony on Antarctica's Beaufort Island.

The images revealed that the penguins actually increased in numbers as the ice fields retreated between 1958 and 2010. In fact, the number of breeding pairs rose from 35,000 to 64,000, constituting an overall population increase of 84 percent. At the same time, the average summer temperature in the area increased about half a degree Celsius per decade since the mid-1980s.

So how did the population numbers of this polar species increase? As temperatures warmed, the ice melted. Since Adelie penguins form colonies on the rocky coastline during the spring breeding season, the warmer conditions were ideal for them to thrive. The ice-free beaches allowed them to build their nests surrounded by stones in more locations and allowed them to access the water more easily, cutting out the need for lengthy overland treks on thick ice. In fact, researchers found that the available habitat for these birds has increased by 71 percent since 1958.

"This research raises new questions about how Antarctic species are impacted by a changing environment," said Michelle LaRue, the paper's co-author, in a press release. "This paper encourages all of us to take a second look at what we're seeing and find out if this type of habitat expansion is happening elsewhere to other populations of Adelie penguins or other species."

The Adelie penguin species didn't just expand in overall population growth, though; they also increased in population density. Over the years, the birds filled in areas that used to be unsuitable for habitation, covered with ice and snow.

The researchers plan to continue to study the Adelie penguins. In particular, they will use additional satellite imagery to look at other populations of these penguins to determine whether or not they have profited from increased temperatures.

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