Penguins Helped and Hurt by Changing Climate Exactly 100 years ago, scientists started studying a penguin colony at Cape Royds, Antarctica. What they've learned since then suggests that climate change will reshuffle life on the planet in complicated ways.
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Penguins Helped and Hurt by Changing Climate

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Penguins Helped and Hurt by Changing Climate

Penguins Helped and Hurt by Changing Climate

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of music)

One hundred years ago, in 1908, scientists started studying a penguin colony at a spot called Cape Royds in Antarctica. What they've learned since then suggests that climate change will reshuffle life on the planet in complicated ways.

Some penguins in Antarctica are faring worst, but others are doing better - at least for a time.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has this report for our series on Climate Connections with National Geographic.

(Soundbite of helicopter rotor)

DANIEL ZWERDLING: We take off from America's main research base in Antarctica. And the helicopter takes only 20 minutes to get to Cape Royds. But it's one of the most spectacular trips in my life. The earth is blinding white in every direction. We pass a white wall of mountains off to the left. We pass an icy volcano on the right. Steam is curling out of the top.

Then the helicopter drops us in a small clearing. We climb a snowy ridge.

(Soundbite of penguins braying)

ZWERDLING: And there are thousands of penguins. They're crowded together on a mound of black volcanic rock.

(Soundbite of penguins braying)

ZWERDLING: These are called Adelie penguins. They look like emperors, which were showcased in that hit movie. Only Adelies aren't as big ? they barely come up to my thighs. Most are milling around; some are flopped on their stomachs on nests which they make out of stones.

(Soundbite of penguin braying)

ZWERDLING: There are fuzzy chicks like toys.

Our guide is David Ainley. He's one of the most respected penguin researchers in the world. He says he loves studying Adelie penguins, partly because they're so out there, literally.

Mr. DAVID AINLEY (Senior Ecological Associate, H.T. Harvey and Associates): There's no bushes here; they don't dig burrows. They just sit out here in the full view and they don't really care if we're around. They have no secrets.

ZWERDLING: It's surprising to hear him talk this way because researchers usually don't describe human emotions to animals. But when Ainley talks about these penguins, it sounds like he's talking about friends.

Mr. AINLEY: You know, they're never doubting themselves. Penguins have no self-doubt, of course, which I have lots of, for myself.

ZWERDLING: David Ainley has a thick white mane, white mustache, rugged face. He seems more comfortable with penguins than people. He's been studying penguins over the past 40 years, and he says he's still amazed what Adelies can do.

As we're chatting, penguins are filing past us like a line of wind-up dolls. They're heading to the sea, a couple hundred yards away, and they're leaping in, head first.

Mr. AINLEY: Well, they are good examples of how we all should live. They are the epitome of the word dauntless.

ZWERDLING: These Adelies dive up to 400 feet deep. They dodge giant ice floes the size of cars which bash around in the surf. Some of the penguins are already coming back. They're shooting straight out of the water like a circus trick.

Mr. AINLEY: Yeah. They can leap nine or 10 feet.

ZWERDLING: And all these penguins just did it in one leap, woop.

Mr. AINLEY: Yeah.

ZWERDLING: Right on the ice.

Mr. AINLEY: Right. Kind of like corks.

ZWERDLING: Scientists say penguins are giving some of the first clues which show how global warming is changing the planet. And Ainley has come up with evidence by asking very basic questions such as: Is this penguin colony growing or is it shrinking? Are the penguins finding plenty of fish to eat or are they hungry? To get the answers, Ainley arms himself with a syringe, and he loads with tiny computer identification chips. Then he and his colleagues grab each penguin and hoist it like a squirming dog.

Mr. AINLEY: We put them under our arm and hold them tightly. They're extremely strong.

ZWERDLING: Do they flap?

Mr. AINLEY: Yeah. They're very aggressive and they're very territorial, and they definitely aren't used to being touched by - well, they don't even want to be touched by another penguin.

ZWERDLING: Still, the researchers inject a chip in every angry penguin's shoulder. Then they take a computerized scale, which looks like a rubber mat, and they place it on the path so the penguins cross it. And now this system lets Ainley track all kinds of information. For instance, what time does each penguin go fishing, and when does it come back? How much weight did the penguin gain or lose?

Mr. AINLEY: It gives us a measure of their condition, if they're lighter than they should be or really heavy or doing really well.

ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, scientists have been doing similar studies in other parts of Antarctica. They've plotted their findings against the climate. And here are the striking results.

During the past few decades, climate patterns in some parts of the continent have changed dramatically, and Adelies in some regions have almost disappeared. Their numbers have plunged 80 percent. Meanwhile, the Adelies where Ainley does his research have been doing better than ever.

Mr. AINLEY: These penguins are definitely being helped by climate change.

ZWERDLING: Ainley and other researchers think they know why. Most types of penguins go fishing only in open water, so they're all competing with each other to find food. But Adelies catch their fish by diving deep under the ice. In fact, they're just about the only penguin that can physically do that. So when there's plenty of ice over the sea, Adelies hardly have any competition, and they can get all the food they want.

But now, the changing climate is shaking things up. Most of the ice has melted in some areas, so Adelies there can't survive. Cape Royds used to have too much ice, but now it has just the right amount. So penguins here are doing great. And Ainley says here's the moral: Global warming is making life unpredictable.

Early this year, he was studying another penguin colony, and a glacier was melting.

Mr. AINLEY: Melting, like I'd never seen it before. There were huge rivers running off this glacier, running through the penguin colony. And these rivers were engulfing these penguin nests. And they were - penguins just keep - kept collecting rocks to try to make their nests bigger, raise them up out of the water. And, you know, for many of them, they couldn't collect rocks fast enough and so their eggs were just washed away. I mean, I thought it was really, really unfair, that humans a long way away were living lives oblivious to what they're doing to the Earth, to these penguins' home - they're not very many.

(Soundbite of two-way radio)

ZWERDLING: That's the helicopter pilot calling.

Mr. AINLEY: It's Cape Royds, over.

(Soundbite of radio crackling)

Unidentified Man: Mr. Ainley, yeah. I'm dropping these folks in (unintelligible), and they'll be over there probably about 10 minutes.

Mr. AINLEY: Okay, we shall be ready.

Unidentified Man: Roger that.

Mr. AINLEY: So we have to make our way toward the landing site.

ZWERDLING: David Ainley says he's coming back to Cape Royds next season. They'll kick off another hundred years of learning from the penguins.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can see penguins up close and personal in a video at

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