Tracking Satellite Data to Protect Penguin Molting Zones

Greg Howard
28th April, 2024

Tracking Satellite Data to Protect Penguin Molting Zones

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • In a study at Rothschild Island, Antarctica, emperor penguins adapted to extensive sea ice, foraging within 100 km of land
  • Penguins showed flexibility in foraging locations, often near open water or ice features, suggesting adaptability to varying ice conditions
  • Concerns arise for future molting sites as sea ice declines, potentially impacting adult penguin survival
Understanding the behavior and survival strategies of emperor penguins in the face of changing environmental conditions is vital for their conservation. A recent study by the British Antarctic Survey[1] has provided new insights into how these iconic birds adapt to variations in sea ice, a key component of their habitat. Emperor penguins are known for their remarkable adaptations to the harsh Antarctic environment. They breed and molt on the sea ice, relying on its presence for successful rearing of chicks and for undergoing the annual molt when they cannot forage and are particularly vulnerable. The study focused on adult emperor penguins from Rothschild Island, located along the west Antarctic Peninsula, during the summer of 2015/2016, a period characterized by an unusually extensive and long-lasting sea ice cover. Researchers fitted 33 penguins with ARGOS Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTT devices), which are satellite-linked trackers that provide data on the animals' locations and movements. These devices revealed that the penguins' foraging trips in preparation for the molt lasted about 9.6 days on average, with the birds traveling approximately 75 kilometers from their colony within coastal waters. Interestingly, the study found that the penguins were not hindered by the extensive sea ice during this particular summer. They managed to stay within 100 kilometers of land and often remained close to features like open water and icebergs, which provide access to the ocean for feeding. This suggests that emperor penguins have a degree of flexibility and can cope with varying sea ice conditions, at least to some extent. However, the study also noted that the locations used by the penguins for molting in 2015/2016 would not have been available in many other years due to reduced sea ice extent, a trend that has been linked to the region's rapid warming[2]. This raises concerns about the future availability of suitable molting sites as sea ice continues to decline, which could potentially affect adult survival rates. The penguins' foraging behavior and their interactions with the sea ice environment are also relevant to discussions about the management of the Antarctic krill fishery. Krill are a key food source for emperor penguins, and the fishery is managed with an ecosystem-based approach that considers the health of krill-dependent predators[3]. The overlap of penguin foraging areas with fishing activities highlights the need for a holistic view in managing the krill fishery to avoid negative impacts on the penguins and other predators. The ability of emperor penguins to adjust their swimming speeds for successful leaps onto the sea ice[4] is another aspect of their remarkable adaptation to their environment. This behavior ensures that they can exit the water efficiently, which is crucial for avoiding predators and for conserving energy during foraging trips. Moreover, the accurate tracking of penguin movements provided by the ARGOS PTT devices is a testament to the advancements in animal location technology. The use of Bayesian methods, as described in a prior study[5], can further refine the understanding of animal movements by incorporating various data sources and reducing uncertainty in location estimates. In conclusion, the study from the British Antarctic Survey sheds light on the resilience of emperor penguins to changes in their sea ice habitat. While they demonstrate adaptability, the ongoing loss of sea ice poses a significant threat to their molting sites and, consequently, their survival. This research not only contributes to the understanding of emperor penguin ecology but also informs conservation efforts and the management of the krill fishery, ensuring the protection of this iconic species in a rapidly changing Antarctic ecosystem.

EnvironmentEcologyMarine Biology


Main Study

1) Using telemetry data and the sea ice satellite record to identify vulnerabilities in critical moult habitat for emperor penguins in West Antarctica

Published 25th April, 2024

Related Studies

2) Ocean forcing of glacier retreat in the western Antarctic Peninsula.

3) Male Antarctic fur seals: neglected food competitors of bioindicator species in the context of an increasing Antarctic krill fishery.

4) Emperor penguins adjust swim speed according to the above-water height of ice holes through which they exit.

Journal: The Journal of experimental biology, Issue: Vol 208, Issue Pt 13, Jul 2005

5) Bayesian estimation of animal movement from archival and satellite tags.

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