Magellanic Penguin Chicks Struggling to Cope with Climate Change

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Written By: Emma Websdale

Environmental conditions linked to climate change are endangering Argentina’s Magellanic penguins, whose chicks are ill-adapted to survive increased rainfall and storm activity.

penguinsAccording to new research from scientists at the University of Washington, increased rainfall and high temperatures caused by climate change is increasing chick mortality in the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins.

The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, studied a colony of 400,000 Magellanic penguins in Argentina over a 27-year period, meaning that long-term impacts of climate change could be analyzed, rather than only the impacts of single weather events. Penguin nests were visited twice a day during the 27 years, with chick mortality or disappearance recorded and correlated to various causes.

Results showed that during the penguins’ breeding season, the number of storms and amount of rainfall increased, including during the first two weeks of December, when the chicks are less than 25 days old. During this stage of development, the chicks are covered with down feathers, rather than with the waterproof feathers that they grow as they reach maturity.

This means that during the months of increased rainfall and storms (November and December), the chicks are unable to dry off or warm up, which can result in death. In contrary, during the summer months when temperatures have been increasing, the feathers also prevent the chicks from cooling down which has also resulted in heat-induced deaths.

Over the course of the study, researchers found that, on average, 65% of the colony’s chicks die each year, with climate change being the most common cause of death in many years. Climate change-driven conditions kill 7% of chicks each year, although in some years that percentage has increased to between 43% and 50%.

“We’re going to see years [in which] almost no chicks survive if climate change makes storms bigger and more frequent during vulnerable times of the breeding season, as climatologists predict”, says Ginger Rebstock, co-author of the report.

The Magellanic penguin is not alone in its struggle to survive climate change. The direct effects of climate change negatively influence other sea birds, as well, including the flightless cormorant. Research from the University of Queensland has shown that an increase in the Galapagos Island’s water temperature—bought on by climate change, is jeopardizing the survival of the rare bird.