Penguins Sound the Alarm on Ocean Health

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Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, penguins are sounding the alarm for potentially catastrophic changes in the world’s oceans, and the culprit is not limited to climate change, says a University of Washington conservation biologist.

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Oil pollution, depletion of fisheries and rampant coastline development that threatens breeding habitats for many species, along with Earth’s warming climate, are leading to rapid population declines among penguins, says Dee Boersma, PhD, a professor in the Department of Biology and recognized authority on the flightless birds.

“Penguins are among those species that show us that we are making fundamental changes to our world,” says Dr. Boersma, who wrote the foreword for Conservation Biology: Research Priorities for the Next Decade. “The fate of all species is to go extinct, but there are some species that go extinct before their time, and we are facing that possibility with some penguins.”

In a paper published in the July-August edition of BioScience, Dr. Boersma notes there are 16 to 19 penguin species, and most penguins can be found at 43 geographical sites, virtually all in the Southern Hemisphere. But for most of these colonies, so little is known that even their population trends are a mystery. As a result, few people realized that many colonies were experiencing sharp population declines.

Dr. Boersma contends the birds actually serve as sentinels for a radically changing environment. She advocates a broad international effort to check on the largest colonies of each penguin species regularly—at least every five years—to see how populations are faring, identify the greatest threats and determine what these changes mean for our planet’s oceans.

“We have to be able to understand the world that we live in and depend on,” she says. “It is the responsibility of governments to gather the information that helps us understand and make it available. But if they can’t do it, then we need nongovernmental organizations to step up.”

For 25 years, Dr. Boersma has worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society and her university colleagues to study the world’s largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo, on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. This population likely peaked at about 400,000 pairs between the late 1960s and early 1980s. Today, the numbers have been reduced by 50%.

There are similar stories from other regions. African penguins decreased from 1.5 million pairs a century ago to just 63,000 pairs by 2005. The number of Galapagos Islands penguins, the only species with a range that extends into the Northern Hemisphere, has fallen to around 2,500 birds—about one-quarter of what it was when Dr. Boersma first studied the population in the 1970s.

The number of Adélie and Chinstrap penguins living on the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the continent, has declined by 50% since the mid-1970s. Other species in Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, the Falkland Islands and Antarctica also have suffered significant population declines, Dr. Boersma says.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this story.

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