First recorded loss of an emperor penguin colony in the recent period of Antarctic regional warming: implications for other colonies

In 1948, a small colony of emperor penguins Aptenodytes forsteri was discovered breeding on Emperor Island (67 degrees 51' 52 '' S, 68 degrees 42' 20 '' W), in the Dion Islands, close to the West Antarctic Peninsula (Stonehouse 1952). When discovered, the colony comprised approximately 150 breeding pairs; these numbers were maintained until 1970, after which time the colony showed a continuous decline. By 1999 there were fewer than 20 pairs, and in 2009 high-resolution aerial photography revealed no remaining trace of the colony. Here we relate the decline and loss of the Emperor Island colony to a well-documented rise in local mean annual air temperature and coincident decline in seasonal sea ice duration. The loss of this colony provides empirical support for recent studies (Barbraud & Weimerskirch 2001; Jenouvrier et al 2005, 2009; Ainley et al 2010; Barber-Meyer et al 2005) that have highlighted the vulnerability of emperor penguins to changes in sea ice duration and distribution. These studies suggest that continued climate change is likely to impact upon future breeding success and colony viability for this species. Furthermore, a recent circumpolar study by Fretwell & Trathan (2009) highlighted those Antarctic coastal regions where colonies appear most vulnerable to such changes. Here we examine which other colonies might be at risk, discussing various ecological factors, some previously unexplored, that may also contribute to future declines. The implications of this are important for future modelling work and for understanding which colonies actually are most vulnerable.


Authors: Trathan, Philip N., Fretwell, Peter T., Stonehouse, Bernard

On this site: Phil Trathan, Peter Fretwell
1 January, 2011
PLoS One / 6
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