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Penguin Colony Shrinks By 90%

Pig Island, Crozet Islands —(Map)

Over the last 35 years, 90% of the King Penguins on a faraway island have been lost. This is especially worrying because it was the largest group of King Penguins in the world.

Penguins live in large groups, called “colonies”. And about half of the world’s King Penguins live in the Crozet islands, which lie between Antarctica and the tip of Africa. The Crozet islands belong to France.

The Crozet islands are home to about half of all the King Penguins in the world.
The Crozet islands are home to about half of all the King Penguins in the world.
(Source: Dimitri Damasceno, via Wikimedia Commons.)

In 1982, scientists visited the colony on one of the Crozet islands, called “Île aux Cochons”, or “Pig Island”. At that time, the scientists figured that there were around 2 million King Penguins there.

But now, after carefully studying images taken from space, scientists believe there are only about 200,000 King Penguins left on the island. That means only one for every ten that were there in the 1980s.

View of Pig Island from space.
By carefully studying pictures taken from space, scientists learned that the King Penguin colony on Pig Island had shrunk by about 90%.
(Source: NASA applied sciences directorate, Stennis Space Center, via Wikimedia Commons.)

What’s worse is that the scientists can’t explain what’s happening.

There are some parts that they understand. For example, things got very warm in 1997. That meant that the penguins had to swim much farther to get to the colder water where they find their food. For many penguins that meant that they couldn’t find enough food to feed their chicks. That year was a hard year for penguins all around Antartica, and many died.

King Penguin feeding chick.
Because of heat in 1997, penguins had to swim farther to find food.
Many penguins couldn’t feed their chicks.
(Source: CTBTO, via Flickr.com.)

After 1997, other penguin colonies started to do better, even on the other Crozet islands. But Pig Island’s King Penguin colony did not. That’s important because Pig Island used to hold about one third of all of the King Penguins in the world.

Scientists are trying to think of what might have caused the problem. It’s possible that there was some kind of sickness just on Pig Island. It’s also possible that the penguins could be having problems with the cats or mice which are also on the island. But there are cats and mice on the other islands, and the penguins there seem to be doing okay.

2017 picture of penguin colony on Possession Island.
After 1997, other penguin colonies started to do better, but Pig Island’s did not.
This 2017 picture is from another Crozet Island, Possession Island.
(Source: CTBTO, via Flickr.com.)

Before this news, people thought King Penguins were fine. Now, scientists are worried that they may be in danger. And it will probably get worse. Because of climate change  , it’s very likely that all of the penguins in the Crozet islands will have to travel farther and farther for food. That will bring penguin numbers even lower. By 2050, they may not be able to live on the Crozet islands at all.

The scientists are planning to travel to Pig Island to count the penguins again and to try and figure out what is going on. But it is hard to get to, and they won’t be able to make the trip until the fall of 2019.

Pig Island, Crozet Islands


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