As a group, penguins are one of the two most threatened seabird species in the world. According to Birdlife International, 10 of the world’s 18 penguin species are considered endangered. Of the 8 Antarctic penguin species two are vulnerable, two are near-threatened and the others have healthy populations.

While Antarctic penguins aren’t officially endangered, scientists have reported that many of them, including Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins, have changed their habits in recent years. Some scientists are concerned that they could be the metaphorical canaries in the coal mine, and that some Antarctic penguins could become endangered in the near future.

Which Antarctic penguins are endangered?

At the time of writing (February, 2020), no Antarctic penguins are officially endangered. What does this mean?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies wildlife under one of nine categories: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild and Extinct.

Based on global IUCN assessments in 2018, Antarctic penguins are classified as:

  • Least concern: Adélie, chinstrap, gentoo and king penguin
  • Near threatened: emperor and Magellanic penguin
  • Vulnerable: macaroni and southern rockhopper penguins

This means that macaroni and southern rockhopper penguins are one step away from becoming endangered.

Macaroni penguin
Macaroni penguins are classified as vulnerable

Are any Antarctic penguins endangered?

While Antarctic penguins are not classified as endangered, emperor penguins are near threatened, which means that they’re likely to move into a threatened category soon. Macaroni and southern rockhopper penguins are considered vulnerable, which means that they’re at risk of extinction if current threats continue.

Why are penguins becoming endangered?

Penguins face many threats, from introduced predators and diseases, and geological events like volcanic eruptions, to pollution, getting tangled in fishing nets, climate change and severe weather.

How does climate change affect penguins?

Scientists are researching exactly how penguins are being affected by climate change, and there are still many unknowns. What we know is that climate change can affect penguins in many interconnected ways. For example, it can reduce sea ice, an important habitat for single-celled algae and phytoplankton, which form the foundation of the Antarctic food chain. This could mean less food for penguins. Climate change can also increase sea ice in some areas, forcing penguins to travel vast distances on foot from their colony to their feeding grounds in the sea.

Warmer air temperatures can cause rainfall in the spring, followed by cold winds and even snow. This can be deadly for eggs or young, down-covered chicks, which don’t yet have their waterproof adult plumage. Changed ocean currents can affect the distribution of krill, an important food source of many penguins.

Are Adélie penguins endangered?

In October 2017, news outlets reported a catastrophic breeding season for one Adélie colony, with only two chicks surviving. A similar failure occurred in 2015. Scientists have also long reported the decline of Adélie penguin colonies across the Antarctic Peninsula, as they move further south in search of cooler conditions.

However, the Natural Resources Defense Council cautions against jumping to conclusions. The situation in Antarctica is complex, and it’s normal for breeding conditions to change from year to year. Breeding failures and the movement of Adélie penguins to the south doesn’t necessarily mean they are under threat. In fact, according to the IUCN, their population is increasing!

Adelie penguins
Adélie penguins are classified as of least concern

Are chinstrap penguins endangered?

Chinstrap penguins made headlines in February 2020, when scientists reported a 58 percent drop in penguin nests at a colony on Elephant Island, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Scientists believe there may be links between chinstrap penguin numbers and the decline of krill, an important food source for penguins, in some Antarctic waters.

While this news is alarming, scientists remind us that Elephant Island is still teeming with life, and tens of thousands of chinstrap penguins squawking, waddling and bringing new chicks into the world. Chinstrap penguins are currently classified as least concern. It’s important to keep monitoring chinstrap penguin populations to get a clear picture of how their populations are changing, and what the key contributing factors are.

Chinstrap penguin and chicks
Chinstrap penguins are classified as of least concern

How many Emperor penguins are left?

The exact size of the emperor penguin population is unknown. In fact, emperor penguins live in such remote colonies across Antarctica, there may be some we haven’t even discovered yet. Between 2008 and 2009, scientists discovered 14 new emperor penguin colonies based on never-before-seen satellite images!

In 2012, scientists made the first aerial population survey and counted about 595,000 emperor penguins. This was a nice surprise, much higher than earlier estimates of 270,000-350,000. Since then, however, emperor penguins have been in decline. In 2012 they were listed as least concern, but today they are near threatened, a trend which is likely to continue unless circumstances change.

Emperor penguins
Emperor penguins are classified as near threatened

Why are macaroni penguins and southern rockhopper penguins vulnerable?

Both macaroni and southern rockhopper penguins are classified as vulnerable, with populations getting smaller each year. These crested penguins generally range further north than other Antarctic penguin species, with colonies in South Georgia, the Falkland Islands and as far north as South America and Australia.

Macaroni penguins are the most numerous penguin species on earth – almost 24 million of them. That’s more than all the other penguin species combined! However, they are affected by predation from growing seal populations, introduced species and disease outbreaks that threaten their colonies.

The story with southern rockhopper penguins is a little more complicated, as scientists aren’t sure what has caused repeated population crashes on subantarctic islands over the past hundred years. They believe that climate change might be affecting their food supply and driving more extreme weather, including storms that damage their breeding rookeries.

It is important to address the threats to these populations, or it may not be long before they join the northern rockhopper penguin, the erect-crested penguin and yellow-eyed penguin on the endangered species list.

Rockhopper penguins
Southern rockhopper penguins are considered vulnerable

How can I help protect Antarctic penguins?

Here are five great ways you can help protect penguins today:

1. Become a citizen scientist!

You can join Penguin Watch as a citizen scientist from the comfort of your home, and help them count penguins from satellite images, just like scientists counted emperor penguins in 2012. This helps scientists gather data on how penguin populations are changing over time.

2. Knit a penguin jacket!

Do you have a penchant for penguins and a knack for knitting? You might be able to help the Penguin Foundation on Phillip Island with their project, Knits for Nature, by knitting penguin sweaters!
They might be the cutest sweaters on earth, with patterns drawn up specially for little penguins. Little penguins are vulnerable to oil pollution, and these sweaters have saved over 400 penguins already.

3. Protect a penguin

You can make a donation to Birdlife International and Protect a Penguin today.

4. Be a responsible visitor

Every year, tens of thousands of visitors flock to the Antarctic Peninsula to experience the incredible wilderness that penguins call home. We love sharing these magical places, and to minimise our impact on penguins, we all stick to strict wildlife watching guidelines created by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). This means moving quietly and slowly, giving penguins right of way and always staying at least 5 metres from any penguins.

5. Support marine protected areas around Antarctica

Marine protected areas are like national parks for the sea. They regulate human activities like fishing, science and tourism in designated areas, to support marine ecosystems to thrive. You can find out more about Antarctic marine protected areas by visiting the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.

Did you know that today, penguins are only found in the southern hemisphere, but there was once a small population of penguins in the Arctic? You may also like to read about the steps we’re taking at Aurora Expeditions to reduce our impact on the environment, or find out about upcoming trips to Antarctica and the subantarctic islands, so you can see these amazing penguins yourself!

Nina Gallo Antarctic historian
Words by Nina Gallo, Aurora Expeditions’ historian and certified PTGA polar guide.

Nina has been drawn to the polar regions since her first otherworldly experience of the midnight sun in 2002. Since then she has spent time in far northern Canada, the Himalayas, the Alps and deserts in America and Australia, always seeking out quiet, wild corners to explore. She feels immensely privileged to travel to these places and shares her passions for the natural world, human stories and adventure with all the wonderful people she meets.

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