Like clockwork, bands of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) gather each morning on wide sandy beaches here in the Falkland Islands as if to contemplate—or commiserate about—what lies ahead before plunging into the icy sea. Throughout the breeding season, adult king penguins set off to feed in the rich waters of the Southern Ocean while their newly hatched babies stay onshore and await their return. It can be a long wait. Adults may spend as much as a week or more at sea and swim hundreds of kilometers on a single foraging excursion, filling their bellies with all the fish, krill, and mollusks they can catch.

Although young king penguins are well adapted to these extended fasting periods, a recent study predicts that climate change and the resulting warming of the ocean may drive the species’ prey southward, farther away from key breeding sites. That would mean longer trips at sea for the parents and longer fasts for the young—unless colonies can find new places to breed. Unfortunately, those options are limited. Unlike some penguin species, king penguins don’t breed on the ice. They require land, specifically wide sandy beaches like this one, on which to lay their eggs and raise their young. But islands in this region are rare, and space on them is highly sought.

Based on computer models of climate, ocean currents, and prey availability, the study predicted which islands were at greatest risk and which might serve as refuges as the global climate and prey availability shifts. The researchers concluded that some 70 percent of the world’s 1.6 million breeding pairs of king penguins could be forced to relocate—or may disappear. Fortunately, the king penguin is nothing if not resilient. Based on genetic analyses, the study also found that the species has survived similar, if slower, climate change events in the past. While their populations may have contracted during these periods, the species has endured and bounced back, providing hope that if we can keep climate change in check, they would do so again.

Falkland Islands

Wim van den Heever

Wim van den Heever has been interested in both photography and nature for as long as he can remember. Raised in a family where photography was more a lifestyle than a hobby, he had many opportunities while growing up to visit Southern Africa's Game Parks. He now travels the world to capture images of extraordinary wildlife and natural phenomena, and hopes that his photos serve as a reminder not only of the beauty of nature itself, but also the threats it faces.

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