Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Penguins setting off sirens over health of world's oceans

University of Washington News: Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, penguins are sounding the alarm for potentially catastrophic changes in the world's oceans, and the culprit isn't only climate change, says a University of Washington conservation biologist. Oil pollution, depletion of fisheries and rampant coastline development that threatens breeding habitat for many penguin species, along with Earth's warming climate, are leading to rapid population declines among penguins, said Dee Boersma, a University of Washington biology professor and an authority on the flightless birds.

"Penguins are among those species that show us that we are making fundamental changes to our world," she said. "The fate of all species is to go extinct, but there are some species that go extinct before their time and we are facing that possibility with some penguins."

In a new paper published in the July-August edition of the journal BioScience, Boersma notes that there are 16 to 19 penguin species, and most penguins are at 43 geographical sites, virtually all in the Southern Hemisphere. But for most of these colonies, so little is known that even their population trends are a mystery. The result is that few people realized that many of them were experiencing sharp population declines.

Boersma contends the birds actually serve as sentinels for radically changing environment. She advocates a broad international effort to check on the largest colonies of each penguin species regularly-- at least every five years -- to see how their populations are faring, what the greatest threats seem to be and what the changes mean for the health of the oceans.

"We have to be able to understand the world that we live in and depend on," she said. "It is the responsibility of governments to gather the information that helps us understand and make it available, but if they can't do it then we need non-governmental organizations to step up."

For 25 years, working with the Wildlife Conservation Society and UW colleagues, Boersma has studied the world's largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. That population probably peaked at about 400,000 pairs between the late 1960s and early 1980s, and today is just half that total…..

Dee Boersma took this photo of a rain-soaked Adélie penguin chick in Antarctica. Its feathers are not capable of repelling water yet. Though the icy continent is in essence a dessert, coastal rainfall is becoming more common with changing climate.

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