New penguin colonies discovered – from space

Looking downy: Penguins mate for life and produce just one or two chicks per year. © Getty

Is this good news for humans? Emperor penguins are the world’s early warning system. Could the discovery of new colonies give us any hope that Earth has begun to reverse the climate crisis?

Hurtling through space, far above the Antarctic, the Sentinel-2 satellite beamed back infrared images of something thrilling to scientists on Earth: penguin droppings. The extensive staining of large patches of sea ice indicated that there were eight new colonies no one had known about – and confirmed the existence of three others that had only been suspected.

The discovery means that there are up to 10% more Emperor penguins than was previously thought, giving a new total of over half a million birds. For lovers of a species classified as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it was hugely significant.

The largest penguin species lives on the world’s shrinking supply of sea ice – and the fate of the penguins gives humanity a clear warning about the planetary effects of burning fossil fuels.

Theirs is an extraordinary story. The penguins congregate at their breeding sites on the edge of the Antarctic in March or April each year, taking up residence on the ice which has formed during the winter. To thrive, they need what is known as a “Goldilocks zone”: ice which is thick and flat enough to provide a stable platform for raising their chicks, but thin enough to create openings through which the birds can dive in search of food.

It also has to remain stable for at least eight months, so that the young have time to lose the down they are born with, and grow the waterproof feathers they need to survive in the sea. There is a risk too for the adults, who moult dramatically in summer and need time for their new feathers to grow – without them, they could drown.

The worry about the newly discovered breeding sites is that they are in areas which are likely to lose their sea ice if global warming continues. Scientists warn that if the climate crisis continues at its present rate, Emperors could virtually disappear by the year 2100, so delicate is their relationship with the environment.

Emperor penguins have long fascinated scientists. They were once believed to be the most primitive birds in existence, providing a missing link to the reptiles from which birds evolved.

It was in search of eggs that might prove this theory that three men set out for a penguin colony on Ross Island in 1911. When one of them – Apsley Cherry-Garrard – wrote a book about their experiences, he called it The Worst Journey In The World.

The men were part of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Leaving the rest of the party at the expedition’s base, the three hauled their sledges 60 miles in almost total darkness and temperatures as low as -61C. It took them 19 days to reach the colony, where they managed to collect five eggs – two of which broke.

On the way back, they were caught in a blizzard so severe that it ripped their tent away, forcing them to build an igloo, which the wind also destroyed. Cherry-Garrard lost most of his teeth when they splintered in the cold.

“If you march your winter Journeys,” his book concludes, “you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”

So, is the latest discovery good news for humans?

Floe charts

Some say yes. One scientist has compared them to a canary in a coal mine: their survival has a direct link to ours. While the exciting discovery of more birds clearly does not mean that Earth is healing itself, it does put more high-profile pressure on national leaders to take urgent action on global temperatures.

Others are more pessimistic. Even if we reach no more than 1.5% above pre-industrial temperature levels – the best-case scenario under the Paris Agreement – the resulting destruction of the sea ice means numbers of Emperor penguins are likely to drop by 30%. The discovery of a few more penguins will make no difference to this.

You Decide

  1. What is the worst journey YOU have ever been on?
  2. Should climate change denial be a crime?

Activities

  1. Penguins huddle together for warmth, taking it in turns to shield each other. Paint a picture of a penguin huddle.
  2. Some governments see the melting of the ice caps as an opportunity to mine for minerals. Write a speech either supporting or opposing this, and deliver it to your family.

Some People Say...

“Penguins are nature’s satire on humanity, which is why we love them.”

Sara Wheeler, British writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Emperor penguins are the most impressive divers and swimmers of all seabirds. They often reach more than 250 metres below the surface – one has even been recorded at a depth of 565 metres. Propelled by their flippers, they have a cruising speed of 10km per hour in water. Emperors are also thought to be the only birds never to set foot on land, as their colonies are all on the sea ice.
What do we not know?
Whether penguins have a uniquely strong parental instinct. Males as well as females are involved in the hatching of eggs: for the final two months before a chick appears, the egg is cared for by the male while the female goes hunting for food. Males are so desperate to be involved in this process that they sometimes care for egg-shaped stones or pieces of ice if no real egg is available. It is not unknown for two males to raise a chick together.

Word Watch

Sentinel-2
A mission launched by the European Space Agency to take photographs of land and coastal waters, monitoring pollution and deforestation among other things.
Infrared
A type of electromagnetic radiation (a wave with electricity). The wave is longer than light which humans can see and shorter than microwaves.
International Union for Conservation of Nature
An association of 1,400 organisations from different parts of the world, devoted to conservation ecology and sustainable development.
Goldilocks zone
In the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks wants her porridge to be not too hot and not too cold.
Moult
Shed feathers in the process of acquiring new ones. It can also refer to the hair of animals or the shell of a mollusc.
Ross Island
An island formed by four volcanoes. It became the base for early Antarctic expeditions because it is the most southerly island reachable by sea.
Ill-fated expedition
Captain Scott and three companions died on their way back from the South Pole. Cherry-Garrard had earlier been sent back to base and, so, survived.
Canary in a coal mine
In the early days of coal mining, miners took a caged canary with them. If there was a leak of gas, the canary would be affected first, warning the miners that they were in danger.
Paris Agreement
An agreement signed by 188 countries and the EU in 2016 to try to limit global warming. In 2017, President Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from it, a decision which comes into effect this November.

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