Most news about climate change does not bode well for the creatures that make their home in the polar regions of the earth. But one type of penguin could be an unexpected benefactor of climate change. In a new study looking at the penguin population on Beaufort Island, a small island in the Ross Sea (along the shores of Antarctica just south of New Zealand), researchers found that rising temperatures have opened up more of the ice-free land on which the island’s penguins thrive, a climatic change that has given their population a boost over the past few decades.
The study, led by the University of Minnesota’s Michelle LaRue, looked not at the Emperor penguins, the stoic species known from the 2005 epic March of the Penguins (or from Happy Feet). Rather, LaRue and her team were studying Adélie penguins, a species that inhabits the islands and coastal regions around Antarctica and is probably best known for their thieving ways, as seen in the BBC series Frozen Planet.
The environment around the Ross Sea is as pristine as you’ll find on Earth. “Until recently,” write the study’s authors, “the food web has been little exploited; there are no invasive species, no widespread chemical pollution, and no mineral extraction activities.” This means that any change to the Adélie’s population is likely due to changing environmental or ecosystem conditions, rather than some direct effect such as hunting.
Adélie penguins on Beaufort Island live on the ice-free patches, with their small habitat “hemmed in by cliffs and glaciers.” Using aerial photographs and satellite observations of the penguins that stretch as far back as 1958 the scientists tracked how Beaufort Island and its penguins have changed over the past half century.
The scientists found that as the Ross Sea region warmed (by 1°C from 1958 to 2010) and the glaciers were pushed back, the amount of open land available to the penguins drove a surge in their population.
Available habitat for Adélie penguins at the main portion of the Beaufort colony, on the south coast, increased 71% since 1958, with a 20% increase during 1983–2010. During the same time, population size increased (+84%), as did colony density.
The authors note that some other Adélie penguin populations may not be faring quite as well as those from Beaufort Island. On the Antarctic Peninsula, populations are going down. And the population of the more famous Emperor penguins is expected to plummet as the world warms.
More from Smithsonian.com: