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Emperor penguins headed for extinction?

 Posted by on February 6, 2009
Feb 062009

By John DeFore
Green Right Now

Photo: Samuel Blanc,

The headline is too perfect to pass up, however sad it may be: A new press release from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution asks, “Emperor Penguins March toward Extinction?”

The breed of penguin whose adorability was highlighted by the documentary hit March of the Penguins may well be endangered, though the pace of the threat may match the speed of their waddle: Those headed for extinction may not be wiped out until the end of the century.

WHOI biologists used mathematical models to project what effect climate change — and the sea ice loss it causes — would have on the penguins who live in affected areas. What they found wasn’t hopeful, at least in certain habitats like Terre Adelie, Antarctica, where they project a population “likely will shrink from its present size of 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs by the end of the century.”

Though they’re hardly certain of the projections — they place the likelihood at between 40 and 80 percent — such a scenario would definitely “put the population at serious risk of extinction.”

The wide probability range results in part from the fact that the scientists’ projections “were based on fluctuations rather than smooth trends.” Unfortunately, an occasional spike in conditions can quickly wreak havoc on the ecosystem around it even if temperatures return to normal relatively quickly: WHOI’s report cites a fluctuation in the ’70s that “led to a population decline in emperor penguins of about 50 percent.”

(Photo credit: Samuel Blanc,; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

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