It is not large mammals nor hungry creatures that stand as the Magellanic penguin’s biggest predator: It is climate change. A recent study conducted by Dee Boersma at the University of Washington claims that changing weather patterns are threatening the chicks of this penguin species.
Boersma, who focuses on conservation biology, has centered her academic research on seabirds as indicators of environmental change. For the past 28 years Boersma has dedicated her investigative efforts to the Magellanic penguins of the South Atlantic. These birds are found in South America, breeding in Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands. Boersma has settled on the Atlantic coast of Argentina studying the 200,000 penguins that live there from September to February incubating their eggs and raising their hatchlings.
Climate change has affected the the food supply of these penguins as it has displaced the fish population on which these birds usually feed. Because of this the Magellanic penguins have to swim an extra 25 miles beyond their nest. However, Boersma’s studies unfortunately indicate that this is not the only climate-related problem these penguins face. Boersma calls this recently discovered problema new mortality factor.
In 1991, an unusual rainstorm in a typically arid area killed as many penguin chicks as starvation and predation combined. Eight years later this rain hit again, killing as many chicks as all other death causes combined. These rainstorms have immensely affected the penguin reproduction status as they indiscriminately attack penguins of all ages. In the stronger torrential downpours of recent years chicks are preferentially threatened because their thick layer of soft down cannot insulate them properly after becoming sopping wet from rain. Older penguins do not suffer the same fate as waterproof feathers, which provide a stronger layer of insulation, grow in with age.
As a warning Boersma points to climate models that estimate even wetter conditions in the future. However, the penguin’s fate is not sealed. Boersma thinks that the penguins can adjust to these conditions if provided with certain provisions such as a protected marine area close for food close to their habitat.
“It’s not something that can be solved in a quick fix,” Mengli Shi, a Hopkins student studying environmental engineering, said. “As part of the human race, we may be sophisticated enough to ignore and keep on living despite the current effects of climate change, but most of the biosphere will not. Our species is only as healthy as the environment around us. The penguins might be far away, on a beach most people never will see, but soon enough we’ll see the same thing happening to our homeland.” Shi, who is an environmental advocate on the Hopkins campus, sees this challenge as sign for immediate action: “Climate change is a global issue. This story is just an example of one of many red flag appearing, warning us that we must also adapt to this changing environment, instead of blindly continuing.”