Experts fear that the world's largest emperor penguin colony in Antarctica is wiped out as a large ice shelf collapsed drowning thousands of chicks.

Scientists said they have not detected breeding of emperor penguins for the last three years since the collapse of the Halley Bay ice sheet in 2016.

The climate change situation in Antarctica threatens the population of emperor penguins.

No Detectable Breeding

Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey found that there were less reddish markings left by the emperor penguins. The red marks were guano or feces, which helped scientists estimate the number of existing pairs.

Emperor penguins breed about 14,000 to 25,000 pairs each year, which makes up 5 to 9 percent of the total global population. Satellite imagery taken in 2018 showed reduced size of the Halley Bay ice sheet and the guano tracks practically disappeared.

"Our specialized satellite image analysis can detect individuals and penguin huddles, so we can estimate the population based on the known density of the groups to give reliable estimate of colony size," said Dr. Peter Fretwell, remote sensing specialist at BAS.

Coauthor and BAS penguin expert Dr. Phil Trathan said they are uncertain if the current conditions of the ice shelves are related to climate change. However, the complete breeding failure was totally unexpected.

Hope For The Future

Fretwell's study published in the journal Antarctic Science suggested that the adult penguins might have migrated to the nearby Dawson Lambton. Increasing guano tracks indicated that the penguins could be looking for better breeding sites.

The colony near Dawson Lambton increased tenfold from 2,000 to nearly 15,000 breeding pairs. They also fear that what was left of the colony would deteriorate as they expect the Brunt Ice Shelf to join a huge iceberg and then eventually break up.

"Over the longer term Antarctic sea ice extent is predicted to both decrease and show more variability, thus one can expect similar threats to colonies to exist across large parts of the species' range," said Peter Convey, a fellow BAS scientist who was not involved in the study.

Tom Hart, penguinologist at the University of Oxford, said that the condition of the sea ice is not the major concern. Emperor penguins are highly adaptable to sea ice, but the rate of the changes is something that was never seen before.

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