Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change

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  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 09 March 2011


In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted an urgent need to assess the responses of marine ecosystems to climate change1. Because they lie in a high-latitude region, the Southern Ocean ecosystems are expected to be strongly affected by global warming. Using top predators of this highly productive ocean2 (such as penguins) as integrative indicators may help us assess the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems3,4. Yet most available information on penguin population dynamics is based on the controversial use of flipper banding. Although some reports have found the effects of flipper bands to be deleterious5,6,7,8, some short-term (one-year) studies have concluded otherwise9,10,11, resulting in the continuation of extensive banding schemes and the use of data sets thus collected to predict climate impact on natural populations12,13. Here we show that banding of free-ranging king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) impairs both survival and reproduction, ultimately affecting population growth rate. Over the course of a 10-year longitudinal study, banded birds produced 39% fewer chicks and had a survival rate 16% lower than non-banded birds, demonstrating a massive long-term impact of banding and thus refuting the assumption that birds will ultimately adapt to being banded6,12. Indeed, banded birds still arrived later for breeding at the study site and had longer foraging trips even after 10 years. One of our major findings is that responses of flipper-banded penguins to climate variability (that is, changes in sea surface temperature and in the Southern Oscillation index) differ from those of non-banded birds. We show that only long-term investigations may allow an evaluation of the impact of flipper bands and that every major life-history trait can be affected, calling into question the banding schemes still going on. In addition, our understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems based on flipper-band data should be reconsidered.

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Figure 1: Survival of banded and non-banded king penguins during the 10-year study period.
Figure 2: Simulated population growth rates of banded and non-banded penguins as functions of SST.
Figure 3: Potential mechanisms involved in negative impacts of flipper bands on life-history traits and population dynamics in king penguins.


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We thank P. Trathan for his comments on the paper. We are grateful to C. Salmon for his help in pre-analysing data. We thank M. Ballesteros, C. Bricaud, N. Chatelain, G. Conan, S. Descamps, J. Dutel, C. Gilbert, S. Gravier, A. Hergott, G. Kuntz, N. Lambert, T. Lebard, N. Lecomte, J. Legrand, S. Mangin, V. Mosch, S. Quéméneur, A. Simon, E. Taquet and C. Villemin, for their help with field work. We also thank I. Durant for her help with chlorophyll data. This work was supported by the Institut Polaire Français–Paul-Emile Victor, the Fondation Bettencourt-Schueller, the Fondation des Treilles and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Programme Zone Atelier de Recherches sur l’Environnement Antarctique et Subantarctique), and grants from the European Commission (Marie Curie, to C.L.B.), the Norwegian Research Council through the Match/Mismatch and Ecosystem project (to J.M.D.) and the YGGDRASIL programme (to C.S.).

Author information

C.S. did the analyses and co-wrote the paper; C.L.B. helped in the analyses, the organization of the paper and the writing; Y.L.M. designed the study and co-wrote the paper; V.A.V. provided ideas on the analyses and co-wrote the paper; N.G.Y. proposed one of the analyses and helped with statistics; J.M.D. supplied ideas on the analyses and the organization of the paper; M.G.-C. and N.C.S. added some very useful comments and modifications to the manuscript; D.B. ran some pre-analyses; and Y.-H.P. provided climatic data.

Correspondence to Claire Saraux or Yvon Le Maho.

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