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Climate change: lessons learned from the penguins

A hundred years ago, colorful canaries warned humans of the hidden dangers of digging for coal by driving a shotgun into the mine and dropping dead.

Now, penguin experts say these birds that move like toddlers in tuxedos are showing us the hidden dangers of burning coal and other fossil fuels by the way they walk. And as global warming changes the game of survival of the fittest at the bottom of the world, a particular species of Antarctic penguin models a poignant lesson for humanity:

Adapt or die… and do it fast.

With numbers in the millions, Antarctica’s six species of waddling aquabats are far from extinction and when I set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula in early March and drank in the most wildlife I have ever seen, there were hundreds of them there to make an adorable first impression. The colonies were bursting with life.

But then I learned how the Southern Ocean warmed by the climate crisis is turning my little boy’s favorite bird into a sentinel species of the Anthropocene. As some abandon the nesting sites where chicks have hatched for thousands of years to find better ground, the colonies of those who refuse to move have crumbled.

“It’s amazing,” Heather Lynch, endowed chair in ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, told CNN. “As ecologists, we know that animals change their range over geological time, they disappear in one area and colonize new areas. But it’s rare to see these dynamics happening over the course of one’s career. “

Along with seals, seabirds, and baleen whales, penguins feed primarily on Antarctic krill, a shrimp-like crustacean that feeds on the type of phytoplankton found beneath sea ice.

Unlike the Arctic, where sea ice has steadily declined, Antarctica’s sea ice has oscillated up and down – although recently scientists have observed a strong downward trend.

At the end of the Southern Hemisphere winter in September 2014, there were more than 7.7 million square kilometers of frozen salt water floating around Antarctica – a record high – and many species including whales humpbacks feasted on krill and thrived.

But earlier this year sea ice hit a record low of less than 700,000 square miles, beating the previous record set last year.

“If we have a 1 degree [Celsius] temperature change in a temperate environment like the UK or the US, who cares?” explained Tom Hart, professor of biology at Oxford Brookes University. “It doesn’t ruin your day . But there, 1 degree makes a huge difference – whether you can stand on water or sink in it. Or whether or not there is a blanket of snow at a breeding site. It’s a completely different habitat.”

Using satellites, camera traps, citizen science and AI computing to keep tabs on millions of penguins around Antarctica, Hart and Lynch say they’re watching a real-time lesson on evolution and life. ‘adaptation.

While Adélie and chinstrap penguins remain stuck in their ancestral habits in hell or hot water, the much more flexible Gentoo penguins are drifting further and further south. And as they show their willingness to hunt new prey or abandon a nest to increase their chances of long-term survival, their numbers explode.

“Gentoo penguins are the big winners from climate change in Antarctica,” Lynch said, confirming reports that some colonies in some areas have increased by 30,000%. “They’re perfectly happy to take advantage of a warming Antarctica. They don’t mind it getting wetter. The flip side is that Adélie and chinstrap populations have cratered in many areas and especially the chinstrap penguins. Their populations have declined in some areas by up to 80%.

“Adaptation means several things,” Hart said. “It means being very tough in a tough environment, but it also means reading the piece about seasonality. It means averaging, so if you’re not doing well in a year, you have to do better. And then you really don’t have only to do well one year out of three.”

“I think there’s a lesson for us here as well,” Lynch said. “If we stick to what we’ve always done, it’s not going to go well for us. Just because Manhattan has always been where it is, does it make sense that it’s here 200 or 300 years from now? I don’t “I don’t know. But I think we would benefit from being plastic, flexible and adaptive. And I think that’s kind of what the gentoos are telling us.”

Apart from the concern that a krill crash could follow the ice crash, bird flu is now present in Chile and Argentina and Hart predicts that it could migrate with seabirds to the Antarctic Peninsula next spring and devastate penguin colonies. “I think we’re going to have a horrible year next year,” he told me. “But we won’t know until it happens.”

These cascading threats also make gentoos an example of what humans in the world of chilling UN climate reports call the “hard” and “soft” limits of adaptation. If political or financial obstacles block an available strategy, it is considered a soft limit. But if the physical changes are too sudden and severe, there is a hard limit to finding a solution.

As I saw on the expedition in early March, even the rolling gentoos with the punches are struggling after a warmer and wetter Antarctica created enough snow and rain events to delay this year’s penguin nesting season by a month.

We watched with grim resignation as gentoo couples pick up stones for worthless nests and mothers hatch chicks that simply won’t have enough time to grow the feathers and fat needed to survive the winter. But Lynch reminded me that this is a colony on an island, and so far what doesn’t kill a gentoo only makes it harder. If they changed neighborhoods so easily, she thinks, they would only change the timing of the baby-making season.

“I think if there was a permanent change to a snowy year climate, gentoo penguins would probably start breeding earlier,” she said. “I think the gentoos will be fine.”

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