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The Time Climate Change Drove Emperor Penguins to the Brink of Extinction

Sometimes it was too damn cold for a penguin to be out walking around.
March 1, 2015, 1:00pm
​Image: GFDL/CC/Wiki

​There's two takeaways in the video below: One, Werner Herzog is a stone-cold weirdo who just goes around asking penguin researchers if they've ever seen penguins go insane, and two, the life of a penguin depends on ocean proximity.

It's the latter point that illustrates why, during the last ice age, the population of emperor penguins dwindled to just three colonies. A new study in the journal Global Change Biology found that even though the famously robust birds are built for the bitter Antarctic cold, what they weren't built for was how the geography of their home continent changed over the ice age that ended 10,000 years ago.

"Due to there being about twice as much sea ice during the last ice age, the penguins were unable to breed in more than a few locations around Antarctica," Gemma Clucas, one of the lead authors of the paper, said in a press release. "The distances from the open ocean, where the penguins feed, to the stable sea ice, where they breed, was probably too far."


The team of British and Australian researchers looked at the genetic history of the largest species of penguin and were able to calculate that the population had once dipped to just over 85,000 individuals in three isolated colonies, near water that was kept open by wind and currents.

Emperor penguins living near the Ross Sea today are still genetically distinct, leading the researchers to conclude that one of the colonies was likely settled there.

"It is interesting that the Ross Sea emerges as a distinct population and a refuge for the species," said Tom Hart, another of the study's organizers. "It adds to the argument that the Ross Sea might need special protection."

While emperor penguins have recovered from this population bottleneck, other studies have found that the rise of warmer temperatures will once again be challenge for the penguins to survive.

"There is a goldilocks point for ice and emperor penguins," Phil Trathan, a British researcher told Reuters.

According to an American study from last year, "global warming will cut Antarctica's 600,000-strong emperor penguin population by at least a fifth by 2100 as the sea ice on which the birds breed becomes less secure."

In his documentaries, Herzog has been known to fixate on nature's unknowing indifference. The Ice Age whittled the population of emperor penguins to just three isolated communities, however knowing what we do, as the climate changes again, the indifference is ours.