On Tuesday, October 26, 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Antarctica’s emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) as an endangered species. Although this species is highly resilient and can endure strong winds and freezing temperature in order to breed and protect their eggs and offspring, melting sea ice is currently upending the habitat they need to breed, feed, and protect themselves from predators, possibly bringing them on the brink of extinction by the end of the century.
“This listing reflects the growing extinction crisis,” said Martha Williams, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world.”
Although the Center for Biological Diversity already petitioned Fish and Wildlife to add the emperor penguin on their Endangered Species Act in 2011, no actions have been undertaken for more than a decade, thus further increasing the risks this species is exposed to. As previous studies have argued, while sea ice around Antarctica has proven more durable than that at the North Pole, almost all emperor penguin colonies in the southern continent could be pushed to extinction by the end of 21st century, unless urgent actions to dramatically decrease global greenhouse gas emissions are taken.
“That body of science really helped to make this decision really clear,” said Shaye Wolf, the Center for Biological Diversity’s climate science director. “That the penguin is endangered by climate change and needs all the protection it can get.”
Although the emperor penguin populations appear to be stable at the moment – with 625,000 to 650,000 birds shuffling around Antarctica – there are already ominous signs of what the future may hold for this iconic bird. For instance, in recent years, the breaking of sea ice before the chicks were ready to swim at Cape Crozier or Halley Bay led to breeding failures.
Scientists and conservationists hope that the listing of this species as endangered will lead to stricter limits on fishing for krill – the penguin’s main food source – around Antarctica, as well as compel United States officials to consider the climate implications of various federal projects before approving them.
“If we manage to take action, and especially action now, we can still avoid the extinction,” concluded Stephanie Jenouvrier, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studied the current situation of Antarctica’s emperor penguins.
The official document listing the penguins as endangered can be accessed here.
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