Sunday, March 23, 2014

Chile’s Penguin Paradise Under Threat

Chile’s Penguin Paradise Under Threat
March 23, 2014

Every year tens of thousands of penguins come to Magdalena Island near Chile’s southern tip to settle and breed. However experts have recently warned that global warming could threaten the long-term survival of the species.

MAGDALENA ISLAND — Experts at the island’s nature reserve in the Strait of Magellan, about 50 kilometers from the city of Punta Arenas, have recently voiced their concerns for the future of this precious penguin colony.

The island is home to a variety of different species including the Magellanic penguin. The Los Pinguinos Natural Monument attracts thousands of visitors each year as tourists flock to the protected area that includes the tiny Marta Island and the windier Magdalena Island.

Roberto Fernández, an expert who has been a ranger on the island for almost a decade explains that one of the main threats to these penguins are seabirds such as the Dominican gulls and skuas which steal penguin eggs and hunt their young.

These predators are growing in numbers and this according to experts is due to the effects of global warming which is in turn dangerous for the island’s penguins.

Monument administrator Neftali Aroca explained to AFP that, ”summer is starting late, then lasting through into March. Climate change is bringing about a rise in gull numbers, that is for sure.”

He explained that a long-term study would have to be undertaken in order to prove for certain if there is a link between the summer lasting longer and the direct threat to the penguin population but he clarified that, ”the forecast is that in the future, the penguins could be at risk.”
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A Magellanic Penguin on Magdalena Island
In January of this year, an alarming study was published by PLOS ONE, a non-profit scientific journal which indicated that a considerable amount of Magellanic penguins had already perished due to abnormally warm weather and heavy rainfall, conditions which the animals are not used to on such a scale.
This study was conducted for 27 years and monitored very carefully in Punta Tombo, Argentina which is known to be the largest breeding ground for the species. The study noted that on average 65 percent of the colony’s young died each year, 40 percent of them dying from hunger and 7 percent of them due to the effects of climate change.

As soon as these penguins are developed enough to swim they flee Magdalena Island to spend the winter months in the warmer waters of Brazil. Sometimes they even make it right up to the shores of Rio de Janeiro.

Valeria Sánchez, a tour guide at Magdalena Island for several years explained that the penguins head back to the Magellan Strait via Argentina and Uruguay. They come back in order to, ”complete their reproductive cycle,” she explains.

The penguins all start arriving around September before the summer months in order to incubate their eggs and care for the young.

Unlike the majority of animals, Magellanic penguins only ever have one partner throughout their on average 25-year lifespan. The males arrive at the island first to find their nests from the previous season and to make any necessary changes or construction work before the females arrive to nest. When the females eventually arrive a couple of weeks later the males sound a call that identifies them so that their partners know the nest’s location. Once the females lays a few eggs she incubates them and doesn’t lave them for at least 12 days, not even to eat!

The males and the females swap places warming the nests so that both of them can eat. The eggs finally hatch around November. During the first few months of their lives penguins are extremely vulnerable, depending on their parents to feed them and teach them how to fend off predators.
Sánchez says that, ”between February and March, they start to leave the island, but this year they began leaving two or three weeks earlier,” Sanchez said.

She jokes that in fact the penguins were simply giving themselves time to go and see the upcoming World Cup in Brazil! However it seems that they just decided to hatch earlier this year.

Only time will tell whether global warming will further threaten the future of these popular animals but we can only hope that Penguin Paradise will remain a haven for our cute little friends for many more years to come.


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