A coastal stretch of East Antarctica was littered with the bodies of dead Adélie penguin chicks after a “catastrophic” breeding season saw all but two of the infants perish.
As Manisha Ganguly reports for CNN, the devastating event was caused by unusually high amounts of sea ice surrounding the Adélie penguins’ breeding ground. The ice forced adult penguins to travel farther for food, and by the time they returned, most of the chicks had died of starvation.
"This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins." Rod Downie, head of Polar Programs at World Wildlife Fund, says in a statement. "It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land."
It is the second time in recent years that the colony has suffered a “catastrophic breeding failure,” as the WWF put it in its statement. In 2015, not a single chick survived after rains and a subsequent cold spell caused them to freeze to death.
The Adélie penguin is the smallest and most ubiquitous Antarctic penguin species. Between October and February, the penguins gather on coastlines across Antarctica to breed. The chick die-off occurred at the start of 2017, affecting a colony of about 36,000 penguins, which are monitored by researchers with France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
Quantities of sea ice in polar regions fluctuate every year, but as the Associated Press reports, climate change has made the variations more extreme. Adélie penguins are deeply affected by changes to their habitat; a recent study projected that between 25 and 58 percent of the birds’ colonies may be in decline by 2060.
Environmental officials are meeting this week in Hobart, Australia to discuss the possible creation of a Marine Protected Area off the coast of eastern Antarctica. The zone would prohibit krill fishing in the area, thereby preserving Adélie penguins’ primary food source.
A protected region won’t mitigate the effects of climate change, of course. But as Yan Ropert-Coudert, a marine ecologist at CNRS, tells the AP, it can help decrease fishing and tourism, which also pose a threat to the penguins.