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Adelie Penguins In Danger

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

From one pole to the other, we're going to take a moment now to focus on the a Adelie penguins of the Antarctic. According to a new study, the population of that breed could drop dramatically by the turn-of-the-century. Megan Cimino headed the study for the University of Delaware. She's now with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and she joins me from KPBS in San Diego. Welcome to the program.

MEGAN CIMINO: Thanks for having me.

SUAREZ: What's happening to create a decline in the population of Adelie penguins?

CIMINO: Well, over the last few decades, there's been climate change happening in Antarctica. There are specific regions that are warming. And in the one area that's warming, we're seeing widespread Adelie penguin population declines.

SUAREZ: How many are we losing? Is this something that's happening very rapidly?

CIMINO: So there's a little bit over 200 penguin colonies around Antarctica. And within those colonies are millions of penguins, something like 4 million. And so we looked at how specific habitats will change over time and in the past and into the future.

And we used our projections on changes in habitat quality to estimate how much their populations could change in the future. And given these changes in the habitat, it's possible that up to 60 percent of current Adelie penguin colonies could experience population declines by the end of this century.

SUAREZ: If you've seen the movie "March Of The Penguins," which is certainly a big favorite, there's this terrifying challenge of raising young and breeding in a really hostile place. At first glance, you think, oh, it's getting a little warmer. That can't be bad. What's actually pressing on the penguins about a warmer environment?

CIMINO: So I should first say that "March Of The Penguins" is about Emperors, which are a different species. And they have a very different life cycle, so they'd be affected in different ways than the Adelies.

But there are two main reasons that we think the Adelies are being affected by warming. And one of those is through changes in food resources. And they mainly eat fish and krill. So if it's harder to find food or their food becomes less available, that's a problem. And the other way is through changes in weather. So the Adelie - they breed on rock. And they make their nests out of small pebbles. So if there's more snow or even more rain, that could be bad news for chicks or eggs that are sitting on the ground. And an egg can't survive if it's sitting in a puddle of water.

And if you're a chick without waterproof feathers, it's possible that you could die from hypothermia or even have increased thermoregulative costs. And that could cause the chick to become skinnier and less likely to survive.

SUAREZ: Why doesn't it push colonies to relocate inside the same landmass?

CIMINO: The Adelie penguins have really high nest-site fidelity, and they will usually return to the place that they were born to nest. So it is possible that they could move to different locations, but in general they're returning to those same colonies year after year.

SUAREZ: Is it just one of those things where we just say, well, that's sad? The world is changing in a way that this animal could no longer live. You're watching them. Are you rooting for them personally, along with your scientific detachment trying to figure out what's going on with them?

CIMINO: So I can tell you that from our work, we do find a glimmer of hope in that it doesn't look like this species is going to die out. There are areas in Antarctica that look like - will be a refuge where they can still flourish, they can still live.

SUAREZ: I was curious as to whether - when you watch these things in the ebb and flow, whether you get personally involved. If you saw an increase in nesting pairs from space one year, would you just sort of give a little cheer quietly in the lab because you really are glad that there are more of them?

CIMINO: Sure, of course. You want your study species to live on. And it is sad to watch a colony die off. So yes, we are definitely cheering for them.

SUAREZ: That's Megan Cimino. She's with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Megan, thanks a lot.

CIMINO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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