A small colony of emperor penguins living on an island off the West Antarctic Peninsula has gone missing. This news marks the first time the disappearance of a penguin colony has been documented. Researchers are unsure of the cause of the disappearance because they have little long-term information about the penguins at the site, and emperor penguins in general, but say global warming may have had a hand in it.
The colony was first documented in 1948, but observations of the population have been spotty ever since. The group was observed in 1978 to have suffered a sharp drop in population, which had been previously recorded at approximately 150 breeding pairs. An airplane survey of the island in 2009 found the site devoid of any penguins at all, according to a study recently published in the journal PLos ONE (via Live Science). So what happened to the birds during that time?
Emperor penguins are large, flightless birds that can stand has high as 4 feet and average as much as 84 pounds. They have a lifespan in the wild of about 20 years, so the birds originally surveyed in 1978 have surely died off. So, did the missing birds relocate to another home, as emperor penguins have been known to do, or did the colony continue to return to this home in smaller numbers each year until there was nobody left? Philip Trathan, lead researcher and head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey told Live Science, “That’s one of the big unknowns.”