Penguins in peril

Climate change, pollution, commercial fishing and tourism have all taken a toll on worldwide penguin populations, according to a new study by University of Washington professor P. Dee Boersma.

More than half of penguin species are now threatened or endangered. While historic population counts aren't always available (penguins aren't exactly easy to count), most species have encountered dramatic declines in recent years. Among Boersma's findings:

  • African penguin populations have dropped from 3 million adults a century ago to 136,000 today.
  • Magellanic penguins in Argentina have dropped from 800,000 in the 1980s to half that level.
  • Galapagos Island penguins have dropped from around 10,000 in the 1970s to 2,500.
  • Erect-crested penguins numbered 200,000 in 1978, but only 100,000 in 1995.
  • Rockhopper penguins sank from 3.2 million in the 1940s to just 100,000 by 1985.

Why care about species that live in some of the world's most inhospitable places? Boersma writes that "penguins provide insights into patterns of regional ocean productivity and long-term climate variation. Having studied several species of temperate penguins for more than 30 years, I know first hand how sensitive they are to their environment. I synthesize my observations to suggest that we have entered a new era of unprecedented challenges for marine systems."

In other words, as go the penguins, so go the rest of the oceans' biodiversity.

Boersma is calling for more monitoring of the 43 penguin "hot spots" (the 1% of their habitats where the most breeding occurs), funneling more money from Antarctic tourism into penguin conservation, and creating an international organization to better track penguin populations.