21 Apr 2022
WORLD PENGUIN DAY – EMPERORS ON THE EDGE
Written by Emily Grilly, WWF Antarctic Manager
This World Penguin Day, we want to bring the spotlight to one of Antarctica’s most iconic species – the emperor penguin. The largest of all penguins and arguably the most recognisable, these remarkable animals need our help to ensure their future survival.
Emperor penguins are one of only two penguin species that live permanently on the Antarctic continent. They are the only warm-blooded Antarctic species that breed during the austral winter. They live year-round on fast ice, which is ice held in place by geographic features and grounded icebergs, and they rely on sea ice habitats to raise their young.1
The long-term survival of the emperor penguin is under threat.
Recent research has found that 98% of emperor penguin colonies may be pushed to the brink of extinction by 2100 if no changes are made to current rates of carbon emissions and climate change.2 Emperor penguins are vulnerable to changes in sea ice, where they breed and raise their young almost exclusively. Massive breeding failure may occur if that ice breaks up and disappears early in the breeding season.
The anticipated future impact of climate change in the Antarctic region, with the potential loss of the sea ice habitat relied upon by emperor penguins, is recognised as the most significant threat to the species in the coming decades.
How can we ensure the survival of this remote and significant species?
To understand how we can protect emperor penguins, we must first understand their story.
Emperor penguins are fascinating creatures. In one of the harshest climates in the world, they have managed to survive for millions of years. It is on this remote landscape where they make their annual migration, walking up to 150km from the Southern Ocean inland to their ancestral breeding grounds. This is an area chosen for its stable ice that is solid year-round to support the colony.
Here, the penguins begin their courtship. To impress the ladies, the males will make striking mating calls and displays of courtship. After a pair meets (around April/May), the females will lay just one egg that season. The male emperor penguins – arguably some of nature’s best fathers – will then go to extraordinary measures to ensure the chick’s survival. The male is responsible for incubating the egg on his feet in a warm brood pouch for several months. They must fast and live on their body fat reserves during this time, while the females return to sea to forage.
Enduring freezing temperatures down to -60°C, the males huddle together for warmth until the chick finally hatches and the female returns to provide food. At this time, the males have not eaten for four months and must make the migration back to sea to feed. For the duration of raising the chick until it is ready to forage and survive on its own, the adults must make multiple arduous journeys between the sea and breeding ground over several months.
Due to this long breeding period, emperor penguins require stable fast ice for at least nine months to successfully rear their chicks.3 As the climate continues to warm due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations, a loss of sea ice in the future is almost certain.
Projected future population size has been critically linked to sea ice change.2
There is an opportunity to afford emperor penguins a greater degree of protection to build their resiliency to changing environmental conditions and therefore have a better chance for survival in the coming decades.
Currently, emperor penguins are listed as ‘near-threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means that the species is likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening their survival are improved. Emperor penguins require a specific environment to breed and grow their population. In a rapidly warming world, there is high probability that this habitat will decrease as sea ice melts, reducing their breeding grounds.
WWF is calling for the uplisting of emperor penguins by the IUCN from ‘near-threatened’ to ‘vulnerable’, following the latest IUCN assessment, which considered the future population trend to be decreasing.4
Additionally, the emperor penguin should be listed by the Antarctic Treaty as a Specially Protected Species.
The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) meets in Berlin, Germany, from 23 May – 2 June. At this upcoming ATCM, nations will discuss an action plan for the further protection of the emperor penguin – the goal is to reduce threats to emperor penguins and their habitat at every stage of their life cycle. The action plan identifies and promotes actions by Antarctic Treaty Parties that are needed to avoid or minimise the threats to emperor penguins arising from human activities and reduce the effects of climate change.
WWF strongly urges Antarctic Treaty nations to adopt the recommendations specified in this action plan.
Alongside the specified protection of this species, we must also consider global actions to address climate change. Research has shown that with a global temperature increase of 1.5°C, the global emperor penguin population is projected to decline by more than 50%.2 Pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C are therefore vital, and WWF encourages actions by international organisations like the Antarctic Treaty and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to address global climate change for the benefit of humanity and global wildlife, including the remarkable emperor penguin.
1. Fretwell, P.T. & Trathan, P.N., 2020. Discovery of new colonies by Sentinel-2 reveals good and bad news for emperor penguins. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, 7(2), 139-153.
2. Jenouvrier, S., Che-Castaldo, J., Wolf, S., Holland, M., Labrousse, S., LaRue, M., Wienecke, B., Fretwell, P., Barbraud, C., Greenwald, N., Stroeve, J., & Trathan, P. N., 2021. The call of the emperor penguin: Legal responses to species threatened by climate change. Global Change Biology, 27(20), 5008-5029. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15806
3. Jouventin, P., 1971. Comportement et structure sociale chez le manchot empereur. La Terre et la Vie, 25, 510–586
4. BirdLife International, 2020. Aptenodytes forsteri. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697752A157658053. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697752A157658053.en