World's Largest Colony of King Penguins Declines by Nearly 90 Percent

At a Glance
The colony's size has dropped from nearly 2 million to about 200,000.
The cause of the collapse remains a mystery.

Climate change may be one of the factors behind the decline.Earth's largest colony of king penguins has seen a massive decline of nearly 90 percent in the past three decades, researchers have warned.

The colony lives on the remote Île aux Cochons – about half way between the tip of Africa and Antarctica. When scientists first counted the colony in 1982, they found nearly 2 million king penguins, according to Agence France-Presse.

Using photos taken from a helicopter and high-resolution satellite images, researchers found only about 200,000 remaining penguins the last time they visited the island, according to a study published in Antarctic Science.

"It is completely unexpected, and particularly significant since this colony represented nearly one-third of the king penguins in the world," said the study's lead author Henri Weimerskirch, an ecologist at the Centre for Biological Studies in Chize, France.

The cause of the colony's collapse remains unknown.

The decline likely began around 1997, according to Smithsonian.com, when a major El Niño temporarily warmed the southern Indian Ocean, displacing the abundant fish and squid the penguins rely on. King penguins don't migrate, so they were stuck on their foodless island.

“This resulted in population decline and poor breeding success for all the king penguin colonies in the region,” Weimerskirch told AFP.


El Niños come in cycles every two to seven years. They can be amplified by global warming, which itself produces many of the same results, but on a longer timescale.

Weimerskirch and colleagues showed in an earlier study that climate change, on its current trajectory, will likely make the Iles Crozet, the archipelago that contains Ile aux Cochon, unviable for king penguins by mid-century, CBS News reports. Migration is not an option because there are no other suitable islands within range.

Disease is another possibility, Science Daily reports. Avian cholera is ravaging populations of seabirds on other islands in the Indian Ocean, like the albatross of Île Amsterdam and the penguins of Marion Island.

Another contributing factor may be overcrowding, CBS News also said.

"The larger the population, the fiercer the competition between individuals," noted a statement from France's National Centre for Scientific Research, which funded the study. "The repercussions of lack of food are thus amplified and can trigger an unprecedented rapid and drastic drop in numbers."

Weimerskirch and other researchers hope to return to Ile aux Cochons in early 2019.

Source: weather

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