Penguins Are Willing to Relocate and Adapt to Climate Change

Jun 21, 2014 07:52 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

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A study released this week claims penguins, who are dealing with melting ice sheets and warming temperatures, are willing to adapt to a changing environment instead of just accepting their fate.

Researchers for the University of Minnesota (UM) said previously most experts believed that as their habits continue to shrink, Antarctic penguin colonies stubbornly stay put, despite the fact that they lose more means to survive every year.

New research from UM's Michelle LaRue, which was presented at the IDEACITY conference in Toronto on June 21, confirms that penguins are a lot smarter than they look, according to a press release issued by the University of Minnesota.

Antarctic penguins retreat to look for better locations or joining other colonies once their homes become too inhabitable.

Satellite footage of Pointe Géologie, and its surrounding arctic regions, revealed evidence that Emperor penguin colonies settle in one spot one year and then the following year they could be completely gone.

"Our research showing that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins," LaRue said in a statement, according to the release.

Penguin populations around Pointe Géologie have declined by more than half since the Southern Ocean first began to warm in the late 1970s. This caused researchers to worry, since they believed the animals stayed in the same location no matter what.

LaRue's analysis of the satellite footage revealed that new penguin colonies have showed up around the Antarctic peninsula, according to the release.

 "If we assume that these birds come back to the same locations every year, without fail, these new colonies we see on satellite images wouldn't make any sense," LaRue said. "These birds didn't just appear out of thin air-they had to have come from somewhere else. This suggests that emperor penguins move among colonies. That means we need to revisit how we interpret population changes and the causes of those changes."

The well-studied species has been featured in movies like "March of the Penguins" and "Happy Feet."

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Ecography.

"If we want to accurately conserve the species, we really need to know the basics. We've just learned something unexpected, and we should rethink how we interpret colony fluctuations," LaRue said.

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