June 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

I realise that our blogs have been somewhat penguin-heavy this week and I can assure you that this was in no way planned (at least not on my behalf). I had originally intended this blog to be about the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. However, faced with the prospect of being branded a killjoy and a spoilsport, I have bowed to pressure and decided to jump on the proverbial penguin bandwagon. Challenger will have to wait until next week.

Last September, following the International Penguin Conference in Boston, scientists announced that more than half of all penguin species are facing population decline. Like me, you may be left wondering which piece of information is most shocking here: the fact that penguins are under such threat or that such an entity as the International Penguin Conference exists. Well, it’s actually the seventh such conference and they have been running since 1988!

The only threat this penguin faces is students with the munchies.

Of the planet’s 18 species of penguin, 12 are now on the IUCN World Conservation Red List of Threatened Species. There are four main reasons for the penguins’ plight:

1. Climate change

Increasing temperatures are leading to altered migration patterns among schooling fish. This is problematic for several penguin species, as these fish, usually a major part of their diet, are becoming ever-harder to find.

2. Over-fishing

Industrial fishing poses two major problems for penguin populations: firstly, penguins sometimes get caught in nets and, secondly, large-scale fishing can result in many of the fish usually eaten by penguins becoming scarce. Macaroni and Chinstrap Penguins are particularly under threat because of their reliance on anchovy and sardine, fish which are currently being harvested from the South Atlantic at an alarming rate.

3. Predation by invasive species

Introduced mammal species, such as weasels, feral cats and foxes, are causing problems for penguins, particularly in areas like New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. Many penguins have evolved in remote environments, free from predatory mammals. As such, these introduced predators are quickly having a marked effect on penguin population levels.

4. Oil pollution

Chronic petroleum pollution is a major source of death for penguins in both South Africa and South America. This problem is not just about the large oil spills which make headlines around the globe; it is also caused by illegal dumping, long term leaks from sunken ships and land-based discharges.

The combination of the four above threats makes the situation for penguins seem pretty grim indeed. However, these threats have nothing to do with the fact that penguins aren’t found in the British Isles. The reason for this, as everyone surely knows, is because they are afraid of Wales!!!

With regards to threat of climate change, penguins, like polar bears, have been described as a ‘canary species’. Hopefully, the plight of penguins will serve as yet another alarm call for people to wake up and start acting to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.