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, 6 (2), e14738

First Recorded Loss of an Emperor Penguin Colony in the Recent Period of Antarctic Regional Warming: Implications for Other Colonies


First Recorded Loss of an Emperor Penguin Colony in the Recent Period of Antarctic Regional Warming: Implications for Other Colonies

Philip N Trathan et al. PLoS One.


In 1948, a small colony of emperor penguins Aptenodytes forsteri was discovered breeding on Emperor Island (67° 51' 52″ S, 68° 42' 20″ W), in the Dion Islands, close to the West Antarctic Peninsula (Stonehouse 1952). When discovered, the colony comprised approximately 150 breeding pairs; these numbers were maintained until 1970, after which time the colony showed a continuous decline. By 1999 there were fewer than 20 pairs, and in 2009 high-resolution aerial photography revealed no remaining trace of the colony. Here we relate the decline and loss of the Emperor Island colony to a well-documented rise in local mean annual air temperature and coincident decline in seasonal sea ice duration. The loss of this colony provides empirical support for recent studies (Barbraud & Weimerskirch 2001; Jenouvrier et al 2005, 2009; Ainley et al 2010; Barber-Meyer et al 2005) that have highlighted the vulnerability of emperor penguins to changes in sea ice duration and distribution. These studies suggest that continued climate change is likely to impact upon future breeding success and colony viability for this species. Furthermore, a recent circumpolar study by Fretwell & Trathan (2009) highlighted those Antarctic coastal regions where colonies appear most vulnerable to such changes. Here we examine which other colonies might be at risk, discussing various ecological factors, some previously unexplored, that may also contribute to future declines. The implications of this are important for future modelling work and for understanding which colonies actually are most vulnerable.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Map of the Antarctic Peninsula showing the study area inset.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Estimated number of emperor penguin breeding pairs on Emperor Island.
Black circles indicate counts made during winter and grey circles counts made later in the breeding season during spring, potentially after some egg/chick loss.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Variability in air temperature at Adelaide Island (May 1962 to December 1974) and at Rothera Point (April 1977 to April 2010).
Thin black lines show the average monthly data; data from; red lines are the average annual (arithmetic average of all months) data; and blue lines average winter (arithmetic average of JJA) data. Analyses shows a significant trend in the average annual (dashed red line; F = 8.97; P<0.015) and average winter temperatures (dashed blue line; F = 5.84; P<0.035) at Adelaide Island and in the average annual temperatures (dashed red line; F = 10.13; P<0.005) at Rothera Point.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Inter-annual changes in the date of fast ice formation and break-up at the Dion Islands, observed from Adelaide Island, West Antarctic Peninsula; data from reports in BAS archives.
The estimated dates for first egg-laying and fledging are shown.
Figure 5
Figure 5. The spatial pattern of trend in sea ice duration change over 1979–2004 .
Scale shows trend in days per year. Black squares indicate the location of all known emperor penguin colonies . Colony reference numbers refer to Table 2.
Figure 6
Figure 6. Partial ecogram summarising climate change effects: potential ecological drivers of change in emperor penguin populations.

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    1. Jenouvrier S, Barbraud C, Weimerskirch H. Long-term contrasted responses to climate of two Antarctic seabird species. Ecology. 2005;86:2889–2903.
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