Environment

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Climate Change, Pollution and Human Interference Pose Danger to Penguins, “Nature’s Survivors”

September 30, 2010 08:00 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Due to climate change, increase in ocean pollution and the rapid human colonization of their natural habitats, 13 out of 18 existing penguin species are now considered to be threatened, endangered or even on the verge of extinction. However, the penguins’ natural resilience and adaptability, product of the struggle for survival in the harshest of climates, prepare them well to fight the circumstances that endanger them.

The Penguin Under Siege

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In early September, a group of biologists, conservation advocates, government officials and zoo and aquarium professionals gathered at the New England Aquarium in Boston for the International Penguin Conference. The event was organized to discuss how environmental and human factors are affecting the survival of the 18 different penguin species that currently exist in the Southern Hemisphere.

According to Heather Urquhart, organizer of the conference, climate change is one of the most important factors disturbing the well-being of penguin species around the globe. The increase in ocean water temperatures and reduction of the amounts of sea ice have had a drastic effect on the oceanic ecosystem, penguins’ natural habitat, limiting their living space and severely damaging the population of krill, an essential component of a penguin’s diet.

Predation by other mammals and human factors such as oil pollution and over-fishing have also contributed to the decline in penguin numbers. In order to reverse this phenomenon, it would be necessary to re-evaluate and modify the degree of human interference in the penguins’ habitat and ecosystem, researchers suggest.

The Adaptability of Penguins

Penguins are aquatic, flightless birds that breed in the Southern Hemisphere. They can be divided into 18 species, populating areas such as Antarctica, South Africa and Namibia, the coastland of Peru and Chile, the coast of Australia and the Galapagos Islands. Some species of penguins, such as the Rockhopper penguins, build the nest atop steep cliffs, whereas the Adelies travel many miles in order to reach their breeding colonies.

The difficult conditions for life in the areas constituting the penguins’ natural habitats have led them to become increasingly adaptable animals.

Penguins are classified as birds due to their feathers and ability to lay eggs, but they are most at ease underwater, where their strong flippers, sleek body shape and waterproof skin allow them to be fast and precise predators. Their speed and agility underwater protects them from natural predators such as killer whales and seals.

In recent years, human predation has greatly contributed to the decline in the penguin population worldwide; fortunately, the remoteness of their natural habitats, together with the difficult environmental conditions in which they dwell, keeps many hunters at a distance.

Penguins can withstand extremely cold temperatures. Their small feet, wings and head allow them to conserve body heat, while the thick layer of insulating fat under their skin helps keep the bitter cold at bay.

Penguins breed in colonies, where both mother and father penguins will take turns caring for the eggs and hunting for food. Their colony behavior also responds to a heat-conserving necessity: By huddling together as a group, penguins are able to better protect themselves from the wind and cold.

Penguins in the Classroom

National Geographic offers a series of educational features about penguins, delivering thorough information through interactive features and lesson plans. The Animal Creatures Features section includes useful facts about the penguins’ behavior and habitat, together with their unique adaptability traits that allow them to survive in harsh climates. The site also includes photographs, videos and maps.

National Geographic Xpeditions also presents a thorough lesson plan about Emperor Penguins designed for students in grades 3-5. It provides a real-life scenario to illustrate the consequences of climate change and human interference in nature.

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