Penguin Chicks In Argentina Are Dying From Increased Heavy Rains And Extreme Heat

Multiple effects of climate change are killing baby penguins in Argentina, according to a new report.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, looked at a total of about 3,500 Magellanic penguin chicks between 1983 and 2010, and found that heavy rains, strong storms and heat were killing off varying numbers of the chicks each year. The chicks lived in Punta Tombo, Argentina, a region which each year houses the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins and which has historically had a mild climate with low precipitation.

Young chicks are covered in soft down — not waterproof feathers like their parents. That means they can become quickly drenched in heavy rains and storms, which can lead to death. In two of the years studied by researchers, heavy rains killed 50 and 43 percent of the chicks — the most common cause of chick death in those years. The study found that chicks died in storms in 13 of 28 years examined, and that high rainfall and lower-than-usual temperature killed more chicks than a lighter, warmer rain.

“Penguins live in the desert and what’s really happening with these rain storms — they are turning their nests into swimming pools and they really don’t like to be wet,” the study’s lead author Prof Dee Boersma told the BBC.

The study found that the storm frequency from early November through February increased between 1983 and 2010 in Punta Tombo, and also that the number of storms during the first two weeks of December, when the chicks are all less than a month old and most susceptible to death from storms and heavy rains, also increased during the study period. It also noted that heavy rain events are likely to become more even more frequent in the future — models predict that extreme precipitation events during the summer months of Punta Tombo will increase by 40 to 70 percent in 2076 to 2100 compared to 1951–1976. In some years of the study period, extreme heat killed penguins too, though it wasn’t as big of a threat as precipitation.

“Penguins are really the ocean’s sentinels,” Boersma told the Christian Science Monitor. “They are telling us that we’d better start paying attention to climate change because penguins are dying from heat and these increased storms. At the same time we’re starting to see increased numbers of people die from these same sorts of things. So these penguins are really the canary in the coal mine.”

And though this study was one of the first to document climate change’s direct effects on seabirds, it’s not the only one to show the effect climate change is having on birds around the world. An October study on peregrine falcon chicks in the Canadian Arctic yielded similar results to the penguin study — namely, that prolongued, heavy rains are causing falcon chicks to drown or die of hypothermia, because their fluffy down isn’t enough to protect them from rains. And a USGS study from this year found that white pelicans are migrating to North Dakota about 16 days earlier in the spring than they did four decades ago, an early arrival that can mean spring hasn’t completely arrived yet in the Midwestern state, causing pelican chicks to die from cold.