A new study warns that climate change is putting king penguins in a pretty tight spot: by the end of the century, an estimated 70% of the tuxedo adorned birds will be forced to choose between death or finding new habitats.
“They will need to either move somewhere else or they will just disappear,” said Emiliano Trucchi, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Ferrara in Italy and one of the paper’s senior authors, in an interview with the New York Times. “The largest colonies are on islands that will be too far from the source of food.”
The study, which was published in Nature, developed a model for how king penguin habitat was likely to change in the coming century. King penguins primarily nest on a handful of small, ice-free islands near the Antarctic continent; as the oceans warm the study found that penguins will be forced to swim farther and farther away to the cool waters to find the fish and krill they need to survive. This isn’t a huge problem for the adult king penguins, which can travel up to 400-miles in their search for food. The real issue is the chicks, which rely on their parents for food during the first months of their lives. The study predicts that as parents’ travel farther for food, many chicks will starve, ultimately leading to a crash in the King penguin population.
“We are talking about 1 million individuals that need to find a new place to live,” Trucchi said to NPR, adding that “the endpoint of this massive relocation is very hard to predict.”
While the researchers did find that the changing climate would likely allow for new habitats to spring up, these new opportunities are unlikely to offset the amount of viable habitat that is lost. For example, about half of all king penguins nest on a couple of islands in the Indian Ocean, the Crozet Islands. Under the model presented in the study, these islands will no longer be viable habitats for the penguins by 2100.
Notably, king penguins aren’t alone in their threatened status. A study published last year showed that juvenile African penguins were dying at alarming rates as they searched for food in empty oceans. Much like the case with the king penguins, researchers found that climate change and overfishing changed the abundance and location of the penguins’ main diet, leading penguins to swim hundreds of miles searching for food that isn’t there.
These findings have led penguin conservations to call for increased protection of penguins’ island habitats, and better management of Antarctica’s fish stocks. Campaigners are currently caling for the creation of the world’s biggest marine protection area in the Antarctic: 700,000 square miles of fishing-free zone, that would protect many of the regions species, including penguins.