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Study: ‘March of the Penguins’ may be wrong

Emperor penguins, stars of the  documentary “March of the Penguins.”(Jerome Maison/Warner Independent Pictures via AP)

In re: the emperor penguin, biologists may have proven Morgan Freeman wrong.

In “March of the Penguins” — the second-highest-grossing documentary ever — the honey-voiced actor intones:

The birds have been feeding in the ocean waters for three months. Now, their bellies full, it is time to find a mate. …

The destination is always the same. Their path, however, is not. The ice on which the birds travel never stops shifting and changing. New roadblocks will appear to baffle them every year.

We’re not exactly sure how they find their way. Perhaps they were assisted by the sun or the stars, or maybe having taken this march for thousands of generations they are guided by some invisible compass within them. …

And finally, often on the same day even around the same time they will arrive at the place where each and every one of them was born. Here they will mate in relative safety. They are now far from the water’s edge where most predators lurk. And the large ice walls will offer some protection from the harshest winds.

Sounds way more romantic than the average trip to Niagara Falls.

Except: According to research from University of Minnesota scholars, emperors are less fussy about where they start families than previously thought. Rather than breeding in one particular colony in one particular place, satellite show shifting locations for penguin colonies.

“Our research showing that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins,” Michelle LaRue, leader of the research team, said in a press release from the University of Minnesota.

“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. 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.”

Indeed, LaRue et. al. looked at the very penguin community chronicled in “March of the Penguins”: Pointe Géologie. Researchers had thought the size of that community was cut in half because of climate change, hypothesizing that fewer young survived.

However, global warming had not caused penguin Armageddon. Turns out the birds were just checking out different parts of the coastline, as the press release explained:

Before satellite images, researchers thought Pointe Géologie was isolated and there was nowhere else for the penguins to go. The satellite images show that Pointe Géologie is not isolated at all. Plenty of colonies are within easy travel distance for an emperor penguin.

In other words, Anarctica is a bit like the Jersey Shore: Penguins can hang out in Atlantic City, Stone Harbor or Cape May.

Other studies, however, shows climate change is hurting emperors. Nature World News pointed out British Antarctic Survey research that concluded penguins are climbing 100-foot ice walls to find stable ice shelves to breed as sea ice retreats.

LaRue’s study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Ecography.

The emperor penguin community had no comment at press time.

Justin Wm. Moyer is a reporter for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter: @justinwmmoyer.



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Justin Wm. Moyer · June 24, 2014

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