Oct 03 2008


We at Penguins United have been busy for the last month and have allowed much too much time to go by without checking in with you, our faithful readers.

Burn out, I think you call it!

We call it WPS – weary penguin syndrome.

Emperor Penguins on Glacial Ice

We are very tired of being what you call “an indicator species” – like in “a species whose presence, absence, or relative well-being in a given environment is indicative of the health of its ecosystem.”

Not much well-being happening these days for us.

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 isn’t only climate change, says a University of Washington conservation biologist.

Oil pollution, depletion of fisheries and rampant coastline development that threatens breeding habitat for many penguin species, along with Earth’s warming climate, are leading to rapid population declines among penguins, said Dee Boersma, a University of Washington biology professor and an authority on the flightless birds.

“Penguins are among those species that show us that we are making fundamental changes to our world,” she said. “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.”

How depressing is that?

Here are some facts:

  • Once about 400,000 pairs lived in the Magellanic penguin colony at Punta Tombo in Argentina between the late 1960s and early 1980s; there are just half that today.
  • African penguins decreased from 1.5 million pairs a century ago to just 63,000 pairs in 2005.
  • Galapagos Islands penguins have fallen to around 2,500 birds, about one-quarter what it was when Boersma first studied the population in the 1970s.
  • Adélie and Chinstrap penguins have declined by 50 percent since the mid-1970s.

  • Where Adelie Penguins Live

    Changing climate also appears to be key in the decline of Galapagos penguins, she said. As the atmosphere and ocean get warmer, El Niño Southern Oscillation events, which affect weather patterns worldwide, seem to occur with greater frequency. During those times, ocean currents that carry the small fish that the penguins feed on are pushed farther away from the islands and the birds often starve or are left too weak to breed.

    These problems raise the question of whether humans are making it too difficult for other species to coexist, Boersma said. Penguins in places like Argentina, the Falklands and Africa run increasing risks of being fouled by oil, either from ocean drilling or because of petroleum discharge from passing ships. The birds’ chances of getting oiled are also increasing because in many cases they have to forage much farther than before to find the prey on which they feed.

    Right now Galapagos penguins is the only penguin species covered by the Endangered Species Act. But we all need protection.

    According to the Center for Biological Diversity:

    For instance, each of two recent El Niño years decimated Humboldt penguin populations along the coast of Chile and Peru, calving of an iceberg off Antarctica resulted in reproductive failure for an entire emperor colony, and a major oil spill off the South African coast wiped out many thousands of African penguins.

    Any wonder we are suffering from Weary Penguin Syndrome?

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