Breaking! Emperor Penguins Will Now Be A Protected Species Under The U.S. Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized protections for the emperor penguin, a flightless seabird endemic to Antarctica, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The impact of climate change on sea-ice habitat, where the species spends the majority of its life, is the primary threat to the penguins.

“This listing reflects the growing extinction crisis and highlights the importance of the ESA and efforts to conserve species before population declines become irreversible,” Service Director Martha Williams said in a statement. “Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world and addressing it is a priority for the Administration. The listing of the emperor penguin serves as an alarm bell but also a call to action.”

Emperor penguins need sea ice to form breeding colonies, forage for food, and avoid predation. As carbon dioxide emissions rise, the Earth’s temperature will continue to increase, and the related reduction of sea ice could affect a variety of species, including emperor penguins, who rely on the ice for survival.

While emperor penguin populations appear to be currently stable, the Service has determined that the species is at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future in a significant portion of its historic range. There are approximately 61 breeding colonies along the coastline of Antarctica, and the species’ population size is estimated to be between 270,000 to 280,000 breeding pairs or 625,000 to 650,000 individuals.

However, according to the best available science, by 2050, their global population size will likely decrease by 26% to an estimated 185,000 breeding pairs and to 47%, which is approximately 132,500 breeding pairs, under low and high carbon emission scenarios, respectively.

The estimated decrease in population size is not equal across Antarctica. The Ross and Weddell Seas are strongholds for the species, and populations in these areas will most likely remain stable. However, emperor penguin colonies within the Indian Ocean, Western Pacific Ocean, Bellingshausen Sea, and Amundsen Sea sectors are projected to decline by over 90% due to melting sea ice.

While this estimated decline is concerning, listing the emperor penguin as threatened under the ESA comes while there is still time to save the species from extinction.

The emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species. Adults may weigh up to 88 pounds and are as tall as 45 inches. Males and females are similar in plumage and size, although males are slightly larger than females.

Females lay one egg each breeding season, which males incubate on their feet for two months while females go to sea to feed. Once the egg hatches, males and females alternate between chick rearing duties and food gathering until the chick can regulate its temperature, and then both adults forage simultaneously to provide enough food for their growing chick. Chicks depart the colony after about 150 days, returning at four years of age to breed for the first time at age five.

The final rule to list the emperor penguin as threatened under the ESA will publish in the Federal Register on October 26th, and will be effective 30 days after publication.

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