During the coldest months of the Antarctic winter, it is the only animal to risk having babies. In order to lay and safeguard a single egg, it is willing to brave hurricane-force winds and subzero temperatures.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an extinction warning for the Antarctic emperor penguin on Tuesday, citing the effects of climate change on the penguin’s breeding, feeding, and predator-free zones.
A statement from the director of the federal wildlife agency, Martha Williams, said, “This designation underscores the escalating extinction problem” as the government listed the iconic seabird as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Changes in global climate are having serious consequences for all living things.
Because of the decrease of sea ice caused by climate change, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned Fish and Wildlife to protect the emperor penguin in 2011.
On Tuesday, federal officials made the final decision to add penguins to the list of endangered species, confirming that assessment, though it remains unclear what measures the government will take to protect the penguins’ habitat. Last year, the organization recommended legal protection for penguins.
In times of difficulty, the seabirds know how to hold out. While the females are out feeding on krill and fish, the males incubate their egg for two months while standing on their feet. As soon as the egg hatches, both parents take turns waddling and sliding hundreds of miles to the ocean to bring back food for their young.
Dr. Stephanie Jenouvrier of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who led the current study predicting the penguins’ fall, observed that the birds’ motions are at once “awkward” and “graceful.”
The film “March of the Penguins,” released in 2005, and the animated feature “Happy Feet,” released in 2006, chronicle the journey that transformed the tenacious, flightless seabird into an animal totem of endurance.
Between 625,000 and 650,000 penguins are currently waddling throughout Antarctica, and this number looks to remain constant.
However, the destiny of the largest and heaviest penguins is not completely unknown. Recent years have seen breeding failures in Halley Bay and Cape Crozier due to the early melting of sea ice.
The Endangered Species Act has been on the books for about 50 years, and it’s main purpose is to prevent the illegal trade of endangered species and the destruction of their natural habitats. However, increasing temperatures offer a ubiquitous hazard that will test wildlife managers’ abilities to safeguard dwindling animal populations.