Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change

Nature. 2011 Jan 13;469(7329):203-6. doi: 10.1038/nature09630.


In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted an urgent need to assess the responses of marine ecosystems to climate change. Because they lie in a high-latitude region, the Southern Ocean ecosystems are expected to be strongly affected by global warming. Using top predators of this highly productive ocean (such as penguins) as integrative indicators may help us assess the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. Yet most available information on penguin population dynamics is based on the controversial use of flipper banding. Although some reports have found the effects of flipper bands to be deleterious, some short-term (one-year) studies have concluded otherwise, resulting in the continuation of extensive banding schemes and the use of data sets thus collected to predict climate impact on natural populations. Here we show that banding of free-ranging king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) impairs both survival and reproduction, ultimately affecting population growth rate. Over the course of a 10-year longitudinal study, banded birds produced 41% [corrected] fewer chicks and had a survival rate 16 percentage points [corrected] lower than non-banded birds, demonstrating a massive long-term impact of banding and thus refuting the assumption that birds will ultimately adapt to being banded. Indeed, banded birds still arrived later for breeding at the study site and had longer foraging trips even after 10 years. One of our major findings is that responses of flipper-banded penguins to climate variability (that is, changes in sea surface temperature and in the Southern Oscillation index) differ from those of non-banded birds. We show that only long-term investigations may allow an evaluation of the impact of flipper bands and that every major life-history trait can be affected, calling into question the banding schemes still going on. In addition, our understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems based on flipper-band data should be reconsidered.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Identification Systems* / ethics
  • Animal Welfare / ethics
  • Animal Welfare / statistics & numerical data
  • Animals
  • Antarctic Regions
  • Artifacts*
  • Climate Change / statistics & numerical data*
  • Ecosystem*
  • Female
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Population Dynamics
  • Reproduction / physiology
  • Seawater / chemistry
  • Spheniscidae / growth & development
  • Spheniscidae / physiology*
  • Survival Rate
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors