Four king penguins walking through the snow

King penguins on the move on South Georgia Island. Credit: Ole Jorgen Liodden/NPL

Conservation biology

King penguins will have to island-hop to survive

Climate change will shift birds’ feeding grounds away from breeding sites.

Climate change could force millions of king penguins to seek new breeding grounds by the end of the century.

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) breed on islands throughout the Southern Ocean and feed where the ocean’s warm and cold waters meet. Emiliano Trucchi at the University of Ferrara in Italy, Céline Le Bohec at the University of Strasbourg in France and their colleagues modelled how the birds’ feeding grounds and distribution might shift as the climate changes. The team projects that unless greenhouse-gas emissions drop over the coming decades, 70% of king penguins — roughly 1.1 million breeding pairs — will be forced to find new breeding grounds, or else disappear, by 2100. As climate change moves the penguins’ feeding grounds southward, relocating birds will have to hop from island to island to follow their food.

Low genetic diversity and breeding rates are likely to limit the penguins’ ability to adapt to changing conditions, the authors say.