Penguins are the living markers that have helped researchers to map the most vulnerable zones of the Antarctic. The recent study shows that different species of penguins are the best assistance in revealing areas in greatest need of protection from the threat of overexploitation in a rapidly-warming climate.
For an international team of scientists, it was extremely important to understand which areas in the Antarctic are most important for wildlife. Following identification, these most vulnerable zones could be protected from current and emerging threats, said Rod Downie, Polar Expert at WWF.
To create a map of such fragile areas, several scientists compiled tracking data from five different species of penguin and a dozen other marine predators to find the zones most densely populated with prey, Science Focus reports.
In the frame of their study, tracking data from adelie, emperor, king, royal and macaroni penguin species were used. To create the completeness of a picture, the researchers included data from two species of petrel, four types of albatross, four types of seal and humpback whales.
The study was based on data collected between 1991 and 2016 from 4,060 individuals across the 17 species. The analysis revealed the areas most popular with multiple predator species were also under the most pressure from commercial fishing and the most vulnerable to changing patterns of sea ice coverage.
WWF: Antarctic wildlife becomes more fragile due to climate warming
The research team now want to see these areas of ecological importance considered for legal protection by including them in marine protected areas recognised by international law.
The Antarctic – which is only just beginning to recover from industrial seal hunting, whaling and deep-sea fishing – is now one of the regions most fragile due to climate change.
Squid and Antarctic toothfish are still fished in these waters, and there is pressure from commercial operations to expand existing krill fisheries.
Krill is a vital prey for predators at the top of the food chain, and one of the areas of significance discovered in the south Atlantic corresponds to an area of increased krill concentration.
As the scientists from the University of Cambridge-based Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research stressed, among the consequences of rapid change in sea ice coverage in the Southern Ocean are pressure on breeding-site availability and access to and the availability of prey.
In the publication in the journal Nature, scientists wrote: “An appropriately designed network of protected areas can help to buffer the effects of climate change and reduce the effect of stressors such as bycatch or competition from fisheries.
“Our areas of ecological significance are clearly candidates for protection.”
Rod Downie added that in the Antarctic and its surrounding ocean, penguins are living on the frontline of the climate crisis. That is why researchers need to understand which areas are most important for wildlife, so we can protect them from current and emerging threats.
“By tracking the movements of these iconic species we can identify the areas that would benefit from greater protection. The more we know about penguins and other Antarctic species, the better we can protect them,” he added.