The Antarctic Peninsula is among the region that is warming the fastest and the melting of its glaciers is contributing to global sea level rise. The rise in global temperature is threatening the existence of one of the most popular symbols of Antarctica – the penguin. The environmental conservation group WWF has warned that rising temperatures and resulting loss of sea ice is posing a grave threat to penguins’ nesting grounds. Atleast four species of penguin are fighting for their survival due to loss of nesting sites and food shortages. The most vulnerable of the four species at risk is the Emperor, renowned for nursing its solitary egg on its feet throughout the long Antarctic winter.
Penguins have adapted to their environment through millennia of great climate changes. This makes them more susceptible to climate change as their size, morphology and other cold weather adaptation restricts their ability to feed and travel. Antarctic and sub-Antarctic penguins are living at the extreme of their capabilities and small changes can have a huge impact on them. The effects of Antarctic warming are influencing the penguins breeding habitats, chick success, food availability, competition and distribution.
The specific responses of penguins to climate change include: poleward shifts in geographic distribution; range contraction (or expansion); changes in the timing of biological events and changes in predator/prey interactions. Penguins are extremely sensitive to prey availability and this is evident from data matching population growth/decline to phytoplankton blooms in the area. They are limited as to how far they can travel for food and depend on predictable food sources in predictable places. Penguins seem to be very slow adapters, and information from the last 8000 years suggests they will respond to a changing environment by dispersal rather than microevolution.