Penguins have an odd reputation. We’re all familiar with them from a very young age, picturing tuxedoed birds hobbling through a frigid landscape of snow and ice; but that’s only partly correct. Some do live in cold environments, that much is true. However, penguins come in all shapes and sizes, 18 different species spread across every continent of the Southern Hemisphere. From the warm southwestern coasts of Africa to the forests of New Zealand, and of course the icy snow covered desert of Antarctica, penguins are a crucial and irreplaceable part of the planet’s ecosystem.
As a species that lives both on land and sea, spending 75% of their lives in the ocean, penguins affect two type of environments. By swimming out to sea to do their hunting for fish, squid, and krill (a shrimp-like crustacean) they bring back with them the unique nutrients of the ocean to the land. During the summer, a medium-sized penguin will eat about two pounds of food a day; with some penguin colonies numbering in the thousands, this can add up to several metric tons of prey consumed by penguins every year. They fertilize the landscape with critical plant nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and organic carbon in their feces. As prey to predators like leopard seals, orcas, and seabirds in cold areas and pumas, mongooses, and crabs in warmer climates, penguins are an important part of the food chain. By studying penguins as a keystone species, we can gauge the health of their predators, their prey, and the entire ocean.
Different species of penguins each face their own threats in their geograpically specific ranges. For many penguin species, the effects of climate change are warming their oceans and reducing the sea ice that some species, like Emperor penguins, spend their life living on. Penguin food supplies of fish, squid, and krill have been decimated by mismanaged fisheries and as this prey moves elsewhere, away from warming oceans. In an unfortunate chain reaction, since krill feed on the algae that grows under sea ice, as the sea ice shrinks, there is less food for the krill, therefore less food for the penguins. Because of all of these factors, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, four penguin species are now considered “Endangered”, five as “Vulnerable”, and another five as “Near Threatened’.
As with most things in nature, when you pull one thread, nearly everything starts to unravel. We see this as changing ocean conditions force penguin parents to forage farther away from their chicks to find food, leaving them unprotected or abandoned and increasing the mortality rate of chicks. Penguins have a low reproduction rate, only laying one or two eggs a year, and take several months to raise their offspring. A natural crisis like a disease outbreak or a human-caused disaster like an oil spill can wreak havoc on their ability to recover quickly. In some places, invasive species like rats, foxes, dogs, and even house cats can cause the decline of native penguins by feeding on them or by spreading disease.
Penguins are in trouble but luckily for them, this beloved species has conservationists like our partners at Global Penguin Society (GPS) working to save them. GPS addresses conservation threats of fisheries management, oil drilling operations, pollution, and the changing conditions of the oceans. They raise awareness for local communities living near penguin colonies by educating them about penguins, including taking children on school trips to see penguins in their natural habitat. Finally, they work closely with government officials as an authoritative voice for penguins to create designated marine and terrestrial protected areas. In 2015, GPS helped to establish a 3.1 million hectare reserve in Argentina – the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Patagonia Azul (Blue Patagonia). The reserve protects 40% of the global population of Magellanic penguins, including the largest colony on earth which consists of more than 500,000 birds. Marine protected areas like this reduce mortality from oil spills and increase food availability so less chicks starve and survive into adulthood.
It’s a big job to save a species as widespread as penguins but with a world of people who love these endearing birds, we can do it together!