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Say 'Hello' to the Adelie Penguin Before Climate Change Decimates Populations

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The Adelie penguin is in real danger of population loss due to climate change, a new report concludes. The animals make Antarctica their home, where, in some areas, global warming is playing havoc with the natural habitat.

Adelie penguins live throughout Antarctica, providing biologists with a method of directly measuring the effects of global warming on a single species. Where the effects of global warming are pronounced, like the West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), Adelie penguin populations are on the decline. However, in other regions, which have, so far, seen little damage from climate change, the number of Adelie penguins remains steady.

The distribution of populations of Adelie penguins has changed over time, as climate patterns evolved. During warmer periods, the birds would populate particular breeding areas, where rocks provided a refuge from the ice. However, as ice encrusted these regions during cold eras, the Antarctic birds would move away to different grounds for mating.

As global climate change continues to raise average temperatures worldwide, the benefits of warmer temperatures may now be moving from providing beneficial to detrimental effects.

"It is only in recent decades that we know Adélie penguins population declines are associated with warming, which suggests that many regions of Antarctica have warmed too much and that further warming is no longer positive for the species," said Megan Cimino of the University of Delaware.

This new study predicts that, by the year 2060, roughly 30 percent of Adelie penguin groups will see declining population levels. By the end of the century, as many as 60 percent of all these populations could see declines.

Sophisticated virtual climate models were combined with satellite images in order to develop future trends in the population of the species over the entire southernmost continent. Live studies, involving researchers counting penguins in the wild, were also utilized in the new study. This allowed investigators to determine how populations of the animals changed over time.

This new investigation was able to determine that global warming is detrimental to the health of Adelie penguin populations. However, researchers are still unable to ascertain what natural mechanisms could trigger losses in the number of animals living in affected areas. Warmer oceans could be driving changes in breeding grounds in northerly latitudes, which make chick-bearing regions there unsuitable for rearing young. Since the 1970s, the number of Adelie penguins in one region of the WAP has declined by 80 percent.

Analysis of Adelie penguin populations and how they can be affected by global climate change was profiled in Scientific Reports.

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