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Penguins: Sentinels of Ocean Health

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Penguins: Trends and ThreatsPenguins have a natural charisma that has helped them to capture the hearts and imaginations of people around the world. These flightless Southern Hemisphere seabirds spend their time primarily in the water, but they come ashore to breed and nest. That makes them ideal environmental sentinels, signaling changing conditions in the ocean and along the coasts that can harm them and other marine life.

Because they come into contact with human activity such as fishing and beachfront development during their travels, they are among the most endangered seabirds. About two-thirds of penguin species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.

“Protection for penguins starts with the decisions we make as individuals, from what we eat, to what we do, to what we conserve. Our actions matter for people and for penguins.”

—Pablo Borboroglu and Dee Boersma

Researchers Pablo Borboroglu and Dee Boersma, both Pew Marine Fellows, have been studying penguins and working to protect them for many years. Their most recent contribution is Penguins: Natural History and Conservation, a compendium of research by 49 experts from 12 countries, published to inform science, policy, and conservation. The book is the first to bring the world’s penguin experts together, a milestone for the Global Penguin Society, or GPS, founded in part through Borboroglu’s work as a Pew Marine Fellow. GPS is an internationally recognized leader in the conservation of penguins and the oceans, advancing its goals through science, management, and community education.  

Threats to Penguins

  • Fisheries: Changes in prey availability affect penguins’ breeding success and winter survival. Many of the birds depend on pelagic (open ocean) prey such as krill, squid, anchovy, or herring. Fisheries that target these species, particularly near penguin breeding grounds, could have a negative effect on penguins.
  • Climate change: According to research, changing ocean temperatures are already a factor in the decline of several penguin species. For example, chinstrap and Adélie populations on the Antarctic Peninsula are decreasing. These penguins eat krill, the small crustaceans that spend the winter under ice feeding on algae. Melting ice decreases krill survival and abundance, however.
  • Pollution: Petroleum pollution, from oil spills and chronic leakage, can kill penguins. Oil also reduces the ability of their feathers to keep them warm and dry in the water. In South Africa, for example, more than 47,000 African penguins exposed to oil required rehabilitative treatment from 1968 to 2000. Pollution is likely to rise as petroleum development and oil transportation increase around the world.
  • Habitat degradation, introduced predators, and human disturbance: Coastal development is occurring in many places where penguins live, disrupting important breeding or prey habitat. Penguins must lay their eggs on land and, as a result, are extremely vulnerable. Rats, cats, foxes, dogs, and a variety of other predators—deliberately or accidentally introduced to coastal areas and islands—have endangered many seabird species. Unless well regulated, tourism and other human presence on breeding grounds also can be a problem. Tourism probably will increase as new roads and coastal development make it easier for people to view wildlife.
  • Disease: Disease is thought to be a moderate or minor factor in most penguin populations. However, this threat may grow as increasing worldwide trade and travel, including rapid transportation, promote the introduction and spread of disease. For example, travel to Antarctica is becoming easier, allowing new potential for introduced infectious parasites or viruses.


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