Penguins Are Marching into Trouble

February 13, 2009

A quarter-century of data reveals how changing weather patterns and land use, combined with overfishing and pollution, are taking a heavy toll on penguin numbers.

Penguins are waddling on slippery grounds. As changing weather, overfishing, and pollution conspire against them, their populations face precipitous decline.

Dr. P. Dee Boersma, University of Washington professor and Wildlife Conservation Society scientific fellow, has studied Magellanic penguins in Argentina since 1982. She directs the WCS Penguin Project, which documents how these birds are faring in the face of increasingly strong storms and a shrinking food supply. At the Punta Tombo wildlife reserve 1,000 miles south of Buenos Aires, Boersma has observed Magellanic penguins traveling farther to find food than they did just a decade ago, when anchovies were more plentiful. As the birds wander beyond their usual turf and build new nests outside of protected areas, they often fall prey to predators.

All told, penguin numbers at Punta Tombo have declined by more than 20 percent in the last 22 years, from 300,000 to just 200,000 breeding pairs, Boersma said.

“Penguins are having trouble with food on their wintering grounds and if that happens they're not going to come back to their breeding grounds,” she said. “If we continue to fish down the food chain and take smaller and smaller fish like anchovies, there won’t be anything left for penguins and other wildlife that depend on these small fish for food.”

Meanwhile, changing weather patterns have also led to heavier rains, which can kill penguin chicks. And Magellanics aren’t the only species affected—of the world’s 17 types of penguins, 12 are rapidly declining.

More on Magellanics

Read more about the Penguin Maven in Wildlife Conservation magazine. Download the article >>

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