IMAGE: OIL COVERED PENGUIN
Marcelo Hernandez  /  AP
A penguin covered in oil rests in a center run by the SOS Marine Life Rescue in Piriapolis, Uruguay, on June 11. A collision between ships had caused an oil spill that killed at least a dozen penguins.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/1/2008 12:08:27 AM ET 2008-07-01T04:08:27

The dwindling march of the penguins is signaling that the world's oceans are in trouble, scientists now say.

Penguins may be the tuxedo-clad version of a canary in the coal mine, with generally ailing populations from a combination of global warming, ocean oil pollution, depleted fisheries, and tourism and development, according to a new scientific review paper.

A University of Washington biologist detailed specific problems around the world with remote penguin populations, linking their decline to the overall health of southern oceans.

"Now we're seeing effects (of human caused warming and pollution) in the most faraway places in the world," said conservation biologist P. Dee Boersma, author of the paper published in the July edition of the journal Bioscience. "Many penguins we thought would be safe because they are not that close to people. And that's not true."

Dozen species in danger
Scientists figure there are between 16 to 19 species of penguins. About a dozen are in some form of trouble, Boersma wrote. A few, such as the king penguin found in islands north of Antarctica, are improving in numbers, she said.

Video: African penguins in danger The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists three penguin species as endangered, seven as vulnerable, which means they are "facing a high risk of extinction in the wild," and two more as "near threatened." About 15 years ago only five to seven penguin species were considered vulnerable, experts said.

And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has already listed one penguin species on its endangered list, is studying whether it needs to add 10 more.

The largest Patagonian penguin colony in the world is at Punta Tumbo, Argentina, but the number of breeding pairs there dropped in half from about 400,000 in the late 1960s to about 200,000 in October 2006, Boersma reported. Over a century, African penguins have decreased from 1.5 million breeding pairs to 63,000.

The decline overall isn't caused by one factor, but several.

Global warming a factor
For the ice-loving Adélie penguins, global warming in the western Antarctica peninsula is a problem, making it harder for them to find food, said Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey, a top penguin scientist who had no role in the new report.

Temperate penguins — such as Galápagos, Peruvian, and African species — are also declining. Boersma suspects that mining of guano, egg harvesting, commercial fishing, and oil spills are the primary causes. Tourism and increasingly severe El Niño weather events, possibly linked to global warming, are partly responsible, he added.

For penguins that live on the Galápagos islands, El Niño weather patterns are a problem because the warmer water makes penguins travel farther for food, at times abandoning their chicks, Boersma said. At the end of the 1998 record El Niño, female penguins were only 80 percent of their normal body weight. Scientists have tied climate change to stronger El Niños.

Oil spills are still an issue and have contributed to the Punta Tumbo declines, Boersma said.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, petroleum pollution was a major source of Patagonian penguin mortality," she wrote. "In 1994, tanker lanes were moved 40 kilometers farther off the coast of Chubut, and the dumping of ballast water and the oiling of penguins are now rare. However, penguins are swimming 60 km farther north from their nests during incubation than they did a decade ago, very likely reflecting shifts in prey in response to climate change and reductions in prey abundance caused by commercial fishing."

Image: Adélie penguin chick
P. Dee Boersma via AP
Rain has soaked this Adélie penguin chick in Antarctica before its feathers are capable of repelling water. Though the icy continent is in essence a desert, coastal rainfall is becoming more common with changing climate.
Trathan said that the problems may be different from place to place, but looking at the numbers for the species overall, "they do give you a clear message."

And this isn't just about the fate of penguins.

"What happens to penguins, a few years down the road can happen to a lot of other species and possibly humans," said longtime penguin expert Susie Ellis, now executive director of the International Rhino Foundation.

Boersma called for conservationists to create a nongovernmental organization dedicated to monitoring key penguin colonies. Penguin population surveys are sporadic, she said, and an organization that steps up that work could provide advance warning of urgent threats.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Death march of the penguins?

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