The Arctic has its animal icon of global warming in the polar bear and now Antarctica has its own symbol of deadly climate change: the penguin. The survival of four species of penguin is directly threatened, according to new research by the WWF, as melting sea ice and stronger winds disturb nesting sites.
The gentoo, chinstrap and Adelie penguins which breed on the continent along with the emperor penguin, the largest species, have declined drastically in the past century. Alongside over-fishing which is depleting the birds' source of food, the immense increase in melting sea ice is destroying their nesting sites, according to findings published today at the UN climate talks held in Bali.
"The Antarctic penguins already have a long march behind them," said Anna Reynolds, deputy director of WWF's global climate-change programme. "Now it seems these icons of the Antarctic will have to face an extremely tough battle to adapt to the unprecedented rate of climate change."
Sea ice covers 40 per cent less area off the West Antarctic peninsula than it did 26 years ago. This decrease has led to reduced numbers of krill, the main food for chinstrap penguins. Some colonies of chinstraps decreased by 30 to 66 per cent in some colonies, as scarcer food made it more difficult for the young to survive. Some emperor colonies have halved over the past 50 years. And it is the same story for gentoo penguins, which are increasingly dependent on the declining krill stocks as over-fishing kills off their usual food sources.
The man-made accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is now accepted as the cause behind record temperatures around the globe. But those temperature shifts are five times more extreme at the poles, impacting dramatically on the animals that have evolved to survive in the cold climate.
The WWF warned that the emperor penguin was the most vulnerable of Antarctic bird and mammal species in the face of climate change, as it needs stable, land-locked sea ice on which to breed because it is too clumsy to climb over icy coastal slopes.
The emperor, which is 4ft high, is the only species to breed in the continent's harsh winter. Emperors are faithful to the same mate for each mating season. The male incubates the egg, cradling it in a pouch for up to 65 days in severe weather while the starving mother goes to feed.