Penguins sentinel of climate change

Global penguin society: «The fragile conservation status of most penguin populations mirrors the Southern Oceans condition and larger marine conservation problems

of the world’s oceans.»


Penguins are a group of aquatic, flightless birds living almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere and are highly adapted to life in the water.

Penguins are a long-lived species, which come back to the land for breeding in dense colonies, lay one or two eggs, and take several months to raise their chick(s).  Most penguins feed on krill, fish, and squid, caught while swimming underwater. The emperor penguin is the only species to breed during the harsh Antarctic winter, on sea ice. Penguin can dive at incredible depth. A female of emperor penguin has dived to a depth of 535 m (1,755 ft) near McMurdo Sound.

Penguins are extremely sensitive to climate change. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed 60% of the 18 penguin species as vulnerable or endangered, and the impact of climate on the food web and habitat is one of the most commonly suggested causes of population decline. Even abundant species like the Macaroni are in steep decline.

In Antarctica, changes in sea ice have altered the breeding and feeding habitat quality and availability for several penguin populations. Temperate penguin species have also been affected by climate changes, such as sea surface temperature or global climate oscillation, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation.

My goal is to understand and predict penguin population responses to climate change. To do so, I’m studying several penguin species from Antarctica to sub-Antarctica. My work is built on international and interdisciplinary collaborations, involving penguin scientists, mathematical ecologists and climatologists.  By combining information on the life history of the penguins, the impacts of climate conditions and the forecasts of future climate change from climate models enabled us to show that the median population size of a large Emperor penguin colony in Terre Adelie, Antarctica, likely will shrink from 6,000 to 400 breeding pairs, if climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rates published in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (see article in OCEANUS ; NSF movie and Jenouvrier et al. 2009 and 2012, See our last press release here!).

I have traveled several times in the Southern Ocean to study penguins. In Antarctica, I visited the French base Dumont D’Urville in Terre Adélie and the Ross Sea to study both emperor penguins and adélie penguins. I have also been to Kerguelen Island in the sub-Antarctic to study Macaroni penguin species. Visit our blog for some field work science and stories.

I’m participating in the seabirds long-term survey program supported by the French  polar Institute Paul Emile Victor and supervised by Henri Weimerskirch and the marine predators team of the laboratory of ecology at Chizé (National Center for scientific research CNRS). In the Ross Sea the long-term program is supported by National Science Foundation and supervised by my collaborators: David Ainley (H.T. Harvey and Associates), Grant Ballard (PRBO Conservation Science) and Katie Dugger (Oregon State University). I strongly recommend their website: