Emperor penguins are being forced to climb up walls of ice 100 feet high to reach new breeding grounds, because warming temperatures are changing their Antarctic habitat, scientists have found.
The hardy birds normally breed on thin sea ice, so they have easy access to waters where they can hunt for food.
However, new analysis of satellite observations has shown that in recent years, as warming temperatures mean that sea ice is forming later than usual, the penguins are having to relocate to larger, floating ice shelves.
Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey explained that it was a challenging journey.
“Satellite observations captured of one colony in 2008, 2009 and 2010 show that the concentration of annual sea ice was dense enough to sustain a colony. But this was not the case in 2011 and 2012 when the sea ice did not form until a month after the breeding season began”, he said.
“What’s particularly surprising is that climbing up the sides of a floating ice shelf – which at this site can be up to 30 metres high – is a very difficult manoeuvre for emperor penguins.
“Whilst they are very agile swimmers they have often been thought of as clumsy out of the water.”
Though they stress that it cannot yet be known if this behaviour is a new phenomenon or simply something that has not been observed before, Fretwell and his colleagues suggest these findings may be evidence that the penguins are adapting to environmental change.
Concern has been growing for the fate of emperor penguins in a warming world, with multiple studies suggesting their numbers would fall rapidly as their sea ice habitat disappears.
One study suggested that the world population of emperor penguins would halve before 2052. This prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to recategorise the species from ‘least threatened’ to ‘near concern’.
Albeit cautiously, the scientists say the discovery of this new behaviour could be good news. The fact that the penguins can move breeding grounds may mean the future of the iconic animals is brighter than previously suggested.
Dr Barbara Wienecke of the Australian Antarctic Division called the findings “an important step forward in helping us understand what the future may hold for these animals.”