The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is an iconic and instantly recognizable species from the Spheniscidae family. These beautiful birds are the heaviest seabird on the planet and have the world’s largest bird-brain.
However, concerns are mounting for their future as the species faces a new threat. So are Emperor Penguins endangered?
Emperor Penguins are not officially endangered. However, climate change threatens the species, with research estimating that nearly all of their breeding colonies could disappear by the start of the next century. Despite their official status, they are now protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Emperor Penguins are one of the toughest bird species on the planet. These birds can spend up to four months standing on exposed ice sheets in temperatures that can drop below - 40 °F (- 40 °C), all while fasting. Ironically, warmth is now their greatest enemy.
Emperor Penguins live in a remote part of the world. They are not hunted, and their natural habitat is not being developed for farming or human settlements. And yet, these birds are still threatened by the impacts of human activity. Their dilemma highlights the threat of global climate change.
This article covers the threats facing the magnificent Emperor Penguin. Read along to learn more about the challenges they face, and what you can do to help.
Emperor Penguins in the colony of Haswell, Davis sea, East Antarctica
Climate change and rising sea temperatures threaten the survival of Emperor Penguins. They have been added to the endangered species list because the winter ice sheets where they breed are breaking up too early.
To understand why climate change is such a major threat to Emperor Penguins, we need to understand their breeding strategy.
Emperor Penguins are unique among Antarctic birds in that they breed in winter. The tall, flightless birds congregate and march across the sea ice to gather in huge colonies. Amazingly, these enormous Penguins have evolved to lay their single egg at the harshest time of year in one of the planet’s coldest places.
The egg hatches towards the end of winter, and the devoted parents must make trips to the edge of the ice sheet to collect food for the chick. In some years, the ice sheets remain too large, and the distance to the sea is too great to bring back food in time. However, rising temperatures present a very different threat.
Warmer temperatures result in the ice sheets breaking up early and holding pools of water. Penguin chicks that have not yet molted into their adult waterproof plumage drown when forced to swim. Rain can also be catastrophic for penguin chicks as they freeze to death after becoming soaked.
A pair of Emperor Penguins gliding on the ice back to the colony
The Emperor Penguin distribution range is limited to the coastal areas of Antarctica. Climate change threatens the entire world population, and the species as a whole will be in danger of extinction if they cannot breed.
Projections indicate that Emperor Penguins will undergo massive population declines within the next two generations. As sea temperatures increase, their traditional breeding grounds will disappear, leaving the birds unable to reproduce.
Emperor Penguins were placed under the protection of the United States Endangered Species Act in October 2022. However, they are still officially listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The number of Emperor Penguins in some colonies began to decline as early as the 1970s. However, the most dramatic and tragic decline happened at Halley Bay in the years after 2016.
What was once the second-largest breeding colony failed for three consecutive years, resulting in the loss of thousands of chicks.
Emperor Penguins are listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Global climate change is by far the greatest threat to Emperor Penguins. Natural variations in the amount of sea ice at breeding colonies are also a threat, as well as disturbance from scientists and visitors.
Climate change is poised to cause massive declines in the Emperor Penguin population, although this is not only a future problem. One small breeding colony is already gone due to the disappearance of sea ice resulting from increased temperatures, and large colonies are also collapsing.
Emperor Penguins have relatively few predators. Killer Whales and Leopard Seals hunt the adults, while large seabirds like Skuas and Petrels prey on their chicks.
Climate change is the biggest threat to Emperor Penguins
The greatest threat to Emperor Penguins is climate change, a global issue with increasingly obvious consequences for life on Earth. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is likely the only way to halt their decline.
Granted, there is no easy fix for the problem, but through education and our combined efforts, we can minimize our environmental impacts.
Limiting our own use of fossil fuels and industries and services that contribute to emissions is probably the best thing we can do for Emperor Penguins.
Estimates from 2009 put the wild population of Emperor Penguins at about 595,000 individuals, including about 238,000 breeding pairs. These birds are rare in captivity due to their specific environmental needs.
However, the Emperor Penguin’s future is looking very uncertain. Alarming predictions from a 2021 study indicate that nearly all of their known breeding colonies will be quasi-extinct by the year 2100.
This means the remaining birds will not be able to maintain a sustainable population. The same study indicates that the species could be at risk of extinction across much of its range by as soon as 2050.
Emperor Penguin colony on the sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica
Few people have the privilege of watching wild Emperor Penguins due to the remoteness of their natural habitat. However, you can see them at a select few zoos that cater to their specialized needs.
Birdwatchers with the necessary time and means can also visit Antarctica by boat to see them and other local wildlife.
Emperor Penguins live only around the coast of Antarctica, a continent that contains no countries. They occur right around the continent, usually restricted to latitudes between 68 and 77 degrees south.
A small 'creche' of Emperor Penguin chicks
Emperor Penguins are a protected species that may not be hunted, killed, or disturbed. They are protected by several pieces of legislation, including the Endangered Species Act and the Antarctic Treaty.
Emperor Penguins are not extinct. The population is estimated at over half a million individuals, although they are decreasing. Sadly, these iconic birds are expected to undergo rapid declines in the coming decades.
Modern people do not usually eat Emperor Penguins. However, there are records of early explorers relying on penguin meat to survive.
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