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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

March of the Penguins

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Sunday, June 22, 2014/Categories: natural history, birds, environment, climate change

In the fine documentary, March of the Penguins, iconic  Emperor Penguins  were seen trekking across frozen Antarctic landscapes and incubating their eggs from the extreme cold. The tuxedoed birds are now marching for another reason---a warming climate is changing their nesting habits---but the results from their marches were unexpected.

New research from the University of Minnesota provides evidence that shows the penguins may be behaving in ways that could allow them to adapt to a changing climate. Using satellite data, conservation biologist and lead researcher, Michella LaRue, found that the birds may not be faithful to their previous nesting locations. She uncovered instances where emperor penguins did not return to the same colony location to breed. The team also located a new penguin colony that may represent the birds relocation.

According to LaRue's research: "our study shows that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years and this challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins. It suggests that the penguins move among colonies. That means we need to revisit how we interpret population changes and the causes of those changes.”

Emperor Penguin Colony, Antarctica  (credit: NOAA)

In the 1970s, the Southern Ocean warmed and similarly a penguin population mapped on the Geologie Archepelago, declined by half. The changing climate was thought to be the cause of this decline. Now, HD satellite imagery has allowed the researchers to view the entire Antarctic coastline and pack ice. Before the satellite data, it was thought the original penguin colony was isolated and the birds didn't have other nesting options. The new images show that Pointe Géologie is not isolated and other colonies are within easy marching distance for the birds.

Science is a self-correcting enterprise as new information is gathered or new methodologies applied to past results considered as fact. Michelle LaRue put her new ecology study into context: “If we want to accurately conserve a species, we need to know the basics. We just learned something unexpected, and need to rethink how we interpret the earlier fluctuations.”

It is nice to think that the penguins and their marches are showing the way.


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