Emperor penguins: They're another species on the growing list of those impacted by climate change.
These are the big guys who make their home down in Antarctica. As the name implies, they are largest penguin species. Adults stand about four feet tall.
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A new study says if global warming continues at its current rate, more than 80% of Emperor penguin colonies will be gone in the next 80 years. In response, US federal wildlife officials are proposing to list the animals under the Endangered Species Act.
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Phil Trathan, with the British Antarctic Survey, co-authored the study and joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about what makes the Emperor penguin so special.
Marco Werman: What are the main ways that climate change threatens emperor penguins? Phil, are you already seeing the effects?
Phil Trathan: Emperor penguins breeze through the Antarctic winter, and they need sea ice as a stable platform, so they really depend upon the sea freezing and forming a firm base. And as temperatures increase in the Antarctic, then we will see the sea ice disappear. And that means then the Emperors will have no place to breed.
How crucial are Emperor penguin populations to the Antarctic ecosystem and what would happen to that ecosystem if those populations do collapse?
If we do start seeing the sea ice decline, as all the models predict, and if we see Empress decline, then they will go. And along with that, there's going to be impacts on the whole food web. So Emperor penguins feed on Antarctic silverfish, on Antarctic krill and on a number of squid species. So some of those will also be impacted. They're the canary in the coal mine that's going to tell us about the Antarctic ecosystem.
It is a whole food cycle, isn't it? In response to your study, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to add these animals to the US Endangered Species List. There are no wild Emperor penguins, of course, that live in the US. Are you aware of any other countries considering similar measures to try to protect penguins from afar?
Yeah. So, the Antarctic Treaty is currently considering listing the emperor penguin as a Antarctic specially protected species. And that would mean that the countries that are signatory to the Antarctic Treaty would also have goals of trying to protect them. And that's that's a much greater number of nation states than just the US. The listing by the US on the Endangered Species Act is great. It's a good lead for other nations. So, I think the US should be proud in that respect.
So clearly, a lot of nations see the value and importance of keeping these special animals from extinction. You've been to the Antarctic 20 times. You have had a lot of face to face time with Emperor penguins. What would you say is different or special about this animal?
Emperors breed in the winter, so they huddle together to stay warm, to keep their bodies warm and to make sure that their eggs are warm, unlike other penguins. Emperors in that respect are quite cool. They're not aggressive. They're just so calm in the way that they deal with an environment which, to humans, is just really harsh. I mean, we wouldn't survive in temperatures that the Emperors survive in. I've been on the ice with Emperor penguins. You can hear them calling. You can hear them calling to their chicks. It's so magical. I mean, I wish your listeners could actually go down there and listen and see these things for themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Editor's note: A previous version of this transcript mistakenly quoted Phil Trathan. The lack of sea ice will leave the emperor penguins with no place to breed, not breathe.