Latest victim of climate change: penguin chicks
The list of climate change casualties just got longer. According to a new study, more frequent storms are killing penguin chicks on the coast of Argentina by leaving the birds drenched and vulnerable to hypothermia.
The team, led by Conservation executive editor Dee Boersma of the University of Washington in Seattle, studied Magellanic penguins in a 7,200-square-meter area at Punta Tombo, Argentina, where rainfall has risen from 1960 to 2000. From 1983 to 2010, the researchers kept an eye on penguin nests during the animals’ breeding season. They also monitored temperature and precipitation in the area.
When the researchers came across a dead chick, they tried to figure out how it had died. For example, bite marks or nearby digging suggested that a predator had killed the bird. Small, thin chicks with empty stomachs had likely starved, and those with an open bill (suggesting panting) in the shade were probably victims of hot weather. If a dead chick discovered after a storm didn’t have other apparent health problems, the researchers concluded that the bird had died from becoming too wet and cold.
From their study of 3,496 penguin chicks, the researchers found that starvation and predators were the most common causes of death. But in some years, rain and heat were the deadliest threats. For instance, 50 percent of chicks died from rain exposure one year and 43 percent another year. The parent penguins couldn’t save their young from this fate; most of the storm victims had a parent at the nest.
The study doesn’t bode well for seabirds that breed along Argentina’s coast. But Boersma has a suggestion for boosting the chicks’ chances. The birds are less likely to survive a storm if they’re also starving, she said in a press release, so establishing a marine protected reserve could ensure that penguins bring home enough food for their young. — Roberta Kwok | 30 January 2014
Source: Boersma, P.D. and G.A. Rebstock. 2014. Climate change increases reproductive failure in Magellanic penguins. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085602.
First image © Dee Boersma | University of Washington
Second image © Boersma, P.D. and G.A. Rebstock. 2014. Climate change increases reproductive failure in Magellanic penguins. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085602.
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