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, 9 (1), e85291

Antarctic Climate Change: Extreme Events Disrupt Plastic Phenotypic Response in Adélie Penguins


Antarctic Climate Change: Extreme Events Disrupt Plastic Phenotypic Response in Adélie Penguins

Amélie Lescroël et al. PLoS One.


In the context of predicted alteration of sea ice cover and increased frequency of extreme events, it is especially timely to investigate plasticity within Antarctic species responding to a key environmental aspect of their ecology: sea ice variability. Using 13 years of longitudinal data, we investigated the effect of sea ice concentration (SIC) on the foraging efficiency of Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) breeding in the Ross Sea. A 'natural experiment' brought by the exceptional presence of giant icebergs during 5 consecutive years provided unprecedented habitat variation for testing the effects of extreme events on the relationship between SIC and foraging efficiency in this sea-ice dependent species. Significant levels of phenotypic plasticity were evident in response to changes in SIC in normal environmental conditions. Maximum foraging efficiency occurred at relatively low SIC, peaking at 6.1% and decreasing with higher SIC. The 'natural experiment' uncoupled efficiency levels from SIC variations. Our study suggests that lower summer SIC than currently observed would benefit the foraging performance of Adélie penguins in their southernmost breeding area. Importantly, it also provides evidence that extreme climatic events can disrupt response plasticity in a wild seabird population. This questions the predictive power of relationships built on past observations, when not only the average climatic conditions are changing but the frequency of extreme climatic anomalies is also on the rise.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: David G. Ainley is employed by a commercial company (H.T. Harvey & Associates) but the authors also maintain that no aspect of the submitted work has been/is in any way influenced by this affiliation. Additionally, this does not alter the authors' adherence to all PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Map of the study area indicating the colony location (star), the foraging area of Adélie penguins (in red) and the location of giant icebergs.
The satellite images are from and illustrate A: a typical iceberg year (Dec. 21, 2004), B: a typical non-iceberg year (Dec. 21, 2008). The foraging area was determined as the polygon that contained 95% of at-sea positions of provisioning parents as determined by radio and satellite telemetry from 1997/1998 to 2008/2009.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Adélie penguins are identified and weighed each time they cross the automated weighbridge on their way to/from the sea.
Picture from David Grémillet.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Predicted foraging efficiency (CPUE) of chick-rearing Adélie penguins depending on sea ice concentration.
(a) Under “normal” environmental conditions, (b) under extreme (presence of giant icebergs) environmental conditions. Purple and blue lines represent values for females and males, respectively. Thick lines represent the average CPUE for each sex. Thin lines represent 95% Highest Posterior Density intervals computed from the posterior distribution of parameter estimates. Predictions were calculated from the following model: log (CPUE+1) = 0.267+0.069×sex (male)−0.051×Iceberg (yes)−0.010×SIC+(−0.074+0.075×Iceberg (yes))×SIC2.

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Grant support

Financial support was provided by NSF grants OPP 9526865, 9814882, 0125608, 0440643 and 0944411. DG is funded by CNRS and the French Polar Institut (IPEV) within the ADACLIM program (grant 388). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.