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Researchers find elusive colony of emperor penguins in eastern Antarctica

Discovery suggests there are more emperor penguin parents in eastern Antarctica than previously thought. (istockphoto)

Penguin colony survives glacier break

Researchers have found a long-sought colony of emperor penguins in eastern Antarctica, but they say it has been split in two due to a glacier break. Moreover, a tally of the 6,000 chicks in these two populations suggests there are more emperor penguin parents in that part of the continent than previously thought.

French scientists spied the waddling, flightless birds on winter sea ice near the Mertz Glacier while on their way to Dumont d’Urville Station. (The documentary “March of the Penguins” was filmed near this research base.)

One population has about 2,000 baby penguins; the second, about 4,000. The researchers say there are probably more than 8,500 breeding pairs in the region, about three times more than previously estimated.

Since 1999, French scientists had suspected they would find a big emperor penguin colony around the Mertz Glacier, but they had been unable to pinpoint the population. Then, in 2009, a British survey found the likely location of the colony based on images from space.

However, the next year, a giant chunk of the glacier — 48 miles long and 24 miles across — broke off, drastically altering the landscape. The researchers believe the two groups of penguins belonged to the colony that was detected in 2009, but they became separated after the break and are now attempting to settle again on favorable surroundings.

The French Polar Institute (IPEV) modified its late-winter trip to Antarctica on the icebreaker Astrolabe to allow researchers Andre Ancel and Yvon Le Maho to look for this penguin population. They found the two groups on Nov. 1 and 2.

Another colony of emperor penguins in eastern Antarctica, this one at Terre Adelie, may not be faring so well due to the melting of the sea ice they depend on for raising their young and for the shrimplike krill that they consume. Scientists using a mathematical model found this colony is likely to decline from 3,000 breeding pairs to 575 by 2100, they reported in June in the journal Global Change Biology.

Melting sea ice may also be the culprit behind the vanishing of another emperor penguin colony, estimated to have 150 breeding pairs when it was discovered in 1948 on Emperor Island off the West Antarctic Peninsula.

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