“Listing emperor penguins as a threatened species is an important step for raising awareness about the impact of climate change,” said Jenouvrier. “Emperor penguins, like many species on earth, face a very uncertain future, which is dependent on people working together to reduce carbon pollution. We should draw inspiration from the penguins themselves; only together can penguins brave the harshest climate on Earth, and only together can we face a difficult climate future.”
Research from penguin scientists is key to informing policy around much-needed protections for the emperor penguin. The ESA listing was rooted in foundational research and findings that scientists provided USFWS, including a study published last year in Global Change Biology, and an earlier study in Global Change Biology (November 2019), recommending that emperor penguins be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Another pivotal study in Biological Conservation (January 2020) highlights the need to improve the forecasting of ecological responses to climate change as it specifically relates to the effective management of the emperor penguin.
The Center for Biological Diversity has long fought for Endangered Species Act protection for the emperor penguin. In 2011 the Center petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the emperor penguin under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2014 the agency agreed that the emperor penguin may be endangered by climate change but failed to make the required 12-month finding on whether to propose protection. In July 2019, the Center sued the Trump administration for failing to act on the petition to protect emperor penguins under the Act.
“This is a big win for these beloved, iconic penguins and all of us who want them to thrive,” said Shaye Wolf, Ph.D., the Center’s climate science director. “At the same time, this decision is a warning that emperor penguins need urgent climate action if they’re going to survive. The penguin’s very existence depends on whether our government takes strong action now to cut climate-heating fossil fuels and prevent irreversible damage to life on Earth.”
Scientists have been working for decades to develop technologies that can remotely sense emperor penguins and ecosystem health. Daniel Zitterbart is an associate scientist at WHOI who studies penguin colonies around Antarctica and sub-Antarctic Islands. He and his colleagues use remote sensing of animal group behavior to understand more about ocean and ecosystem health, and this technology will benefit future monitoring programs to measure the conservation impact. His research takes him to Antarctica, often for months at a time, to live and work among emperor penguin colonies.
“Emperor penguins are a sentinel species that highlight the vulnerability of ice-dependent species in a rapidly warming world,” said Zitterbart. “Although they live far from human activity, the far-reaching effects of climate change present the most substantial threat facing the species’ survival.”
Emperor penguins—the world’s largest penguin species—breed and molt on sea ice, that is frozen seawater. Of the 18 different species of penguins, only two (the emperor and Adélie) are true Antarctic residents. Emperor penguins are extremely vulnerable to a warming climate, because like polar bears in the Arctic, depend on sea ice for vital life activities like breeding, feeding, and molting. They are well adapted to thrive in freezing conditions, but in parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, sea ice cover has reduced by over 60% in 30 years and one colony has virtually disappeared. Emperor penguins are a vital part of the Antarctic food chain- they prey upon krill, squid, and small fish and in turn are preyed upon by predators like leopard seals and killer whales.
“The U.S. Government is today ringing alarm bells to the world with its decision to list the emperor penguin as Threatened, under the US Endangered Species Act,” said Philip Trathan, Emeritus Fellow (retired) at the British Antarctic Survey. “International action is now urgently needed through the Antarctic Treaty System to protect this species, while globally governments work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Only global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will secure the future for these iconic ice-dependent species.”
Scientist project that 99% of the world’s emperor penguins will disappear by 2100 without major cuts in carbon pollution. “The world needs to take aggressive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, and the Paris Climate Agreement objectives must be met, to help prevent further population declines,” said WHOI’s Jenouvrier.