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Penguin Health Equals Ocean Health


It’s hard not to identify with penguins as they waddle about upright on land, clad in their tuxedo-like plumage. In their crowded breeding colonies, they squabble with and show off to their neighbors, sometimes resorting to petty theft. One can almost imagine joining the end of the queue when they follow one another in single file along icy paths, sometimes slipping or body sledding along the way.

Penguins do far more than make us smile, however; they also play important roles in ecosystems both in the ocean and on land. Penguins—adults, young and eggs—serve as food for predators such as leopard seals and seabirds in cold areas, along with foxes, leopards, and even crabs in warmer climates. By chasing after fish, squid and krill, they affect prey populations wherever they hunt. They carry nutrients between land and sea, and enrich both with their feces. Some burrowing species even modify the landscape as they dig nests into the ground.

But many species of penguins are declining in numbers and, because they feed in the ocean and breed on land, they face threats in both realms. Of the 18 species of penguins alive today, 11 are listed as threatened with extinction by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). In the last 25 years, 14 species have been upgraded to a more severe conservation status because of human-induced changes to their ecosystems. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing impoverish penguins’ ocean habitat, while habitat degradation, introduced predators and human disturbance are affecting penguins on land.