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Adelie penguins benefitting from climate change, U of M research says

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Adelie penguins
Adelie penguins in the Antarctic are shown in a photo from 2010. University of Minnesota researcher Michelle LaRue and colleagues say the population of Adelies has increased as the climate has grown warmer, in part because there is more dry land for their breeding grounds.
Photo courtesy Michelle LaRue

As in most things, even in climate change, there are winners and losers.

Emperor penguins in Antarctica are feeling the negative affects of warmer climates, according to research, but there some evidence from the University of Minnesota that another penguin species is actually doing better.

The number of Adelie penguins, which also live in Antarctica, has been growing as their habitat has thawed, most markedly over the last 30 years.

Michelle LaRue, a Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Polar Geospacial Center, worked on the study of Adelie penguins.    

LaRue and her colleagues have been studying a colony of Adelie penguins on Beaufort Island, in the Ross Sea of Antarctica.  The population of that colony has increased by 84 percent over the past 50 years. In 1958 there were about 35,000 breeding pairs, and now there are about 65,000, according to LaRue. 

The researchers studied historic aerial photos and current satellite images to determine how much space the colony has been occupying on the island.  They also had researchers fly over the island, to "literally count noses" to see how many birds were there. 

Adelie penguins
Adelie penguins in the Antarctic, in a photo from 2010. These penguins need dry land to breed, and they make nests out of rocks. Climate change which has led to warmer temperatures in the Antarctic has exposed more dry land and factored into population growth for colonies of Adelies over the past 50 years.
Photo courtesy of Michelle LaRue

Adelie penguins are different than Emperor penguins who need sea ice to breed. Adelies need ice-free and snow-free land to breed, LaRue said, and the warmer weather is exposing more dry land for the Adelies. 

There are other factors at work in the growth of the Adelie population, according to LaRue. One  is the reduction in the number of Antarctic toothfish, more commonly known as Chilean sea bass, which are found in the Ross Sea as well.  The sea bass are being harvested at higher rates as they've become a popular fish for consumers to eat.  

"Anatarctic toothfish and Adelie penguins both prey on the same thing," silver fish, said LaRue. "So as [the Adelies] have one less competitor in the area, their prey will likely increase and that could be contributing to their population increase as well."   

LaRue said it's too soon to tell whether these findings indicate a larger trend involving climate change and other species that live in Antarctica. 

"This is showing us something that we hadn't thought of before. There will be climate change winners and climate change losers throughout the world," said LaRue. 

She added that it's not clear yet whether Adelies who live in other parts of Antarctica are seeing a similar population spike, because their habitats may be changing in different ways, or not changing at all. 

"This is just one more piece of the puzzle, and opens up more questions as to what other impacts may be affecting Adelie penguins and other species that we should potentially be looking at."