The life of emperor penguin chicks is no bed of roses. First the little gray and white fluffies hatch in the middle of the Antarctic winter, then they are regularly left alone for months, first by one, then by both parents, and have to protect themselves against cold, bad weather and predators. When they are finally fledged, they still have to walk for kilometers over the ice before they have to search for food in the vastness of the Southern Ocean without parental support. And in doing so, they travel much further distances that lie far outside the protected areas, as an international study shows.
Up to 600 kilometers farther north than previously thought, young emperor penguins equipped with transmitters swam in their first year of life. This put them over 1,000 kilometers away from the protected areas where fishing is prohibited for the benefit of the emperor penguins. This was reported by an international research team led by lead author Aymeric Houstin and Céline Le Bohec from the Research Center in Monaco and the University of Strasbourg. Researchers from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and the Alfred Wegener Institute AWI were also involved in the work, which has just been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science . “We show that conservation efforts in the Southern Ocean are insufficient for protecting this highly mobile species, and particularly its juveniles,” the authors conclude in their paper.
Previous studies had already shown that young emperor penguins travel long distances in the Southern Ocean for several years after leaving the colony to forage. But no data were available from the region east of the Weddell Sea. For their study, the scientists looked at the emperor penguins of Atka Bay, which is located near the German research station Neumayer-III and consists of about 9,650 breeding pairs. A total of 8 juveniles, just under six months old, were equipped with transmitters that would use satellites to help the researchers record the migration routes. The data showed Houstin and his colleagues that the animals were swimming far outside the region of occurrence known for the animals, and thus were also outside the protected areas established for them. These areas were created based on the migration routes of adult emperor penguins known to date. Other studies also showed a similar picture in young penguins. “Our data illustrate that strategic conservation plans for the emperor penguin and other long-lived, ecologically important species should consider the dynamic habitat range of all age classes,” says AWI’s Dr. Olaf Eisen, co-author of the study.
Emperor penguins live in 61 known colonies on Antarctic fast ice, close to the continent. According to estimates, around 270,000 breeding pairs still live there. The largest penguin species is threatened mainly by climate change and fishing, while tourism plays a rather modest role due to the remoteness of the colonies and the fact that the colonies dissolve from late November to mid-December. The occurrence regions proposed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and the protected areas within them should provide protection from fishing for the icons of Antarctica. But they cover just 10 percent of the young penguins’ distribution area, according to the research team. In certain months, the animals were not even in the protected areas at all.
The authors therefore call for existing and planned marine protected areas to be expanded accordingly so that emperor penguins would receive the greatest possible protection at all stages of their lives. But experts do not believe that this demand will be successful. At meetings of CCAMLR, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the establishment of new protected areas in the Southern Ocean has regularly failed in recent years due to the vetoes of individual states.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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