Emperor penguins are moving to relocate to new territories in response to climate change, according to new research.
University of Minnesota biologists studied migrations of emperor penguins using satellite images. Researchers previously believed the animals were philopatric, returning to the same nesting location every year.
Emperor penguins were recorded changing the locations they set up nests, possibly in response to climate change. Over three years, the animals were seen moving into six new locations. One colony, never before seen by researchers, may represent the birth of a new group of the birds on the Antarctic Peninsula.
"Our research showing that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins," Michelle LaRue of the University of Minnesota, said.
Penguins are an extremely well-studied species, and the subject of several documentaries. One colony at Pointe Géologie in Antarctica is the subject of a 2005 film called "March of the Penguins." That group has been studied by biologists for six decades.
Wildlife investigators have been concerned for years about the effect global warming and melting ice sheets are having on the cold-weather birds. During the second half of the 1970's, emperor penguin populations dropped by half, from 6,000 to 3,000 breeding pairs. Biologists believe rising temperatures were responsible for the losses. This new research suggests the birds may have re-located, rather than dying off, as previously theorized.
Satellite images taken of the region show the tracks of guano left behind by the penguins during migrations. Because the penguins are the only major animal out on the sea ice, tracking by this method is easily accomplished.
Investigation reveled that the penguins of Pointe Géologie were not isolated as once believed. LaRue and her team discovered that several colonies of the birds could be reached by the emperor penguins.
If the team is correct in their conclusions, emperor penguins are responding better than many biologists expected to global climate change.
"If we want to accurately conserve the species, we really need to know the basics. We've just learned something unexpected, and we should rethink how we interpret colony fluctuations," LaRue stated in a university press release.
Michelle LaRue presented her findings at the Ideacity conference, held in Toronto. The event also featured the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin.
Investigation of Emperor penguin migration patterns and how they are affected by global climate change will be published in a future edition of the journal Ecography.