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SBU Study: Warming Antarctic Weather Leads to Penguin Breeding Decline

Stony Brook researcher leads data analysis of the chinstrap penguin population.

A study aided by a Stony Brook University researcher has found that warming weather at Deception Island in Antarctica has led to a significant decline in breeding within the chinstrap penguin population there.

Heather Lynch, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University, and chief scientist of the Antarctic Site Inventory project, conducted census effort analyses on the penguins' breeding patterns. The Inventory project has been collecting data on the Antarctic Peninsula penguins since 1994. Deception Island is one of the most frequently-visited places in that region.

According to the researchers, the findings have important implications.

Lynch said they show the decline in chinstrap penguin breeding is a result of warming temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula, where temperatures have increased by about 3˚ C. (5˚ F.) annually and by 5˚ C. (9˚ F.) in winter, and particularly at Baily Head in the Deception Island region. According to the study, two out of the three main populations of penguins in the area – the chinstrap and Adélie penguins – are declining while the gentoo penguin population is expanding.

“The decline of chinstrap penguins at Baily Head is consistent with declines in this species throughout the region, including at sites that receive little or no tourism," Lynch said in a statement. "Further, as a consequence of regional environmental changes that currently represent the dominant influence on penguin dynamics, we cannot ascribe any direct link in this study between chinstrap declines and tourism.”

She added: "We cannot forget the overwhelming evidence that climate is responsible for the dramatic changes that we are seeing on the Peninsula. If tourism is having a negative impact on these populations, it’s too small an effect to be detected against the background of climate change.”

The study was published this week in the journal Polar Biology. It was overseen by Ron Naveen, founder of the nonprofit science and conservation organization Oceanites, Inc.

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