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"While several factors may have a role to play, all the evidence we have points to climate change as being responsible for the changes we are seeing," said researchers

By Benjamin VanHoose
February 11, 2020 02:42 PM
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A Chinstrap Penguin colony on Penguin Island. Greenpeace is back in the Antarctic on the last stage of the Pole to Pole Expedition. We have teamed up with a group of scientists to investigate and document the impacts the climate crisis is already having in this area. *This picture were taken in 2020 during the Antarctic leg of the Pole to Pole expedition under the Dutch permit number RWS-2019/40813.
Credit: © Abbie Trayler-Smith/Greenpeace

One species of penguin has experienced a rapid downtick in its population, scientists say.

On Tuesday, a group of independent researchers on a Greenpeace expedition to Antarctica shared findings from their recent survey of chinstrap penguin colonies in the region. The team found that every colony surveyed in their habitats on Elephant Island had declined.

Some colonies of the chinstrap penguin — the birds get their name from their distinguishing thin, black band facial features — have reduced by as much as 77 percent since they were last surveyed, about 50 years ago, researchers found.

“Such significant declines suggest that the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem is fundamentally changed from 50 years ago, and that the impacts of this are rippling up the food web to species like chinstrap penguins,” Heather J. Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University and a member of the expedition, said in a press release.

Lynch added: “While several factors may have a role to play, all the evidence we have points to climate change as being responsible for the changes we are seeing.”

Chinstrap penguin on the shore of Elephant Island in Antarctica. Greenpeace is in the Antarctic to investigate the impacts of the climate crisis as part of the Protect the Oceans Expedition, a year long pole to pole ship tour, campaigning for the establishment of ocean sanctuaries to safeguard this frozen region and its penguins, seals and whales, and to help address the climate emergency. (This picture was taken in 2020 during the Antarctic leg of the Pole to Pole expedition under the Dutch permit number RWS-2019/40813)
Chinstrap penguin on the shore of Elephant Island.
| Credit: © Christian Åslund/Greenpeace
Noah Strycker, a graduate student at Stony Brook University in New York, studies Chinstrap Penguins on the Antarctic peninsula. Elephant Island is home to one of the world’s largest Chinstrap Penguin populations, yet it has only been ornithologically surveyed once – nearly 50 years ago, in 1971. To understand how these penguins are faring today, an expedition is organized to census the Chinstrap Penguins on Elephant Island in 2020 by penguin researchers from Stony Brook University and Northeastern University together with Greenpeace to study the impact of climate change on fragile chinstrap penguin colonies in Antarctica. An observer must count every single penguin nest, one by one, and repeat the count three times within a 5% margin to ensure accuracy. It’s often easiest to find a high point with a good view, and use landmarks (like rocks and other terrain features) to visually divide up large chunks of birds. (This picture was taken in 2020 during the Antarctic leg of the Pole to Pole expedition under the Dutch permit number RWS-2019/40813)
Noah Strycker, a graduate student at Stony Brook University, studies Chinstrap Penguins on the Antarctic peninsula.
| Credit: © Christian Åslund/Greenpeace

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A Chinstrap penguin colony on Elephant Island and Greenpeace ship the Esperanza in the background. Greenpeace is in the Antarctic to investigate the impacts of the climate crisis as part of the Protect the Oceans Expedition, a year long pole to pole ship tour, campaigning for the establishment of ocean sanctuaries to safeguard this frozen region and its penguins, seals and whales, and to help address the climate emergency. (This picture was taken in 2020 during the Antarctic leg of the Pole to Pole expedition under the Dutch permit number RWS-2019/40813)
Chinstrap penguin colony on Elephant Island.
| Credit: © Christian Åslund/Greenpeace
Chinstrap penguin colony at Muckle Bluff on the south coast of Elephant Island in Antarctica. To understand how penguin populations are faring, a census has been organised by researchers from Stony Brook University, Northeastern University and Greenpeace to study the impact of climate change on fragile chinstrap penguin colonies on Elephant Island. Greenpeace is back in the Antarctic on the last stage of the ‘Protect The Oceans’ Expedition. We have teamed up with a group of scientists to investigate and document the impacts the climate crisis is already having in this area. (This picture was taken in 2020 during the Antarctic leg of the Pole to Pole expedition under the Dutch permit number RWS-2019/40813)
Chinstrap penguin colony at Muckle Bluff on the south coast of Elephant Island.
| Credit: © Christian Åslund/Greenpeace
Greenpeace activists installed a two-metre high penguin ice sculpture on the shore of the River Thames opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is part of a campaign to highlight the threats to marine life as part of a global call by Greenpeace for greater action on ocean protection.
Greenpeace activists installed penguin ice sculpture in London.
| Credit: David Mirzoeff/Greenpeace

According to the research team — which is made up of experts from Stony Brook and Northeastern University — the total number of chinstrap penguins on Elephant Island is 52,786 breeding pairs, which is a nearly 60 percent drop from the last survey in 1971, with previous estimates at 122,550 pairs.

To raise awareness for the declining penguin populations, campaigners have installed “disappearing penguin” ice sculptures in capitals around the world. In the past week, the displays have popped up in Washington, D.C., London, Buenos Aires and other cities.

“We installed a melting penguin sculpture in front of the U.S. Capitol to highlight the threats ocean wildlife is currently facing,” Arlo Hemphill, a senior ocean campaigner at Greenpeace USA and member of the Protect the Oceans campaign, said in a press release.

Hemphill continued: “Without protection, not only penguins are at stake but entire ecosystems are in danger from the impacts of industrial fishing, pollution, deep-sea mining and climate change.”