New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguins are close to extinction. A new study published May 16 in the journal PeerJ said the endangered penguins could become locally extinct within the next 25 years, and that it could be caused because of rising ocean temperatures.
Researchers studied the yellow-eyed penguin at a well-monitored breeding ground in New Zealand. The bird is one of the country’s signature animals, and it is even displayed in New Zealand’s currency.
According to models conducted by scientists from the University of Otago in New Zealand, increasingly warm waters–caused by climate change- will decrease the penguins’ chances of producing more chicks (baby penguins) each summer.
Yellow-eyed penguins could go extinct by 2060 or sooner
The study said penguins at well-studied mainland breeding ground, and possibly other grounds, would go extinct by 2060, but that after considering die-off events like the one in 2013 they believe the extinction could happen sooner.
“When including adult survival rates from 2015 into the models the mean projection predicts yellow-eyed penguins to be locally extinct in the next 25 years,” said Dr. Stefan Meyer, a co-author of the study, in a statement published in EurekAlert.
Climate change has a significant impact on the world’s flora and fauna, as it can affect a species habitat and distribution. Species with spatially limited distributions often suffer from climate-related changes in their habitats, which can lead to range shifts, range restrictions or, in the worst case, extinction, according to the study.
The researchers noted that the yellow-eyed penguin is an example of the issues with climate change. The penguin, which was classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is one of New Zealand’s landmarks, as it has a significant cultural and economic value for the country. The tourism industry in the Otago Peninsula benefits from the presence of the yellow-eyed penguins, as it is estimated that they contribute more than NZ$100 million to the local economy.
“Ensuring the survival of the species is therefore not only a matter of ethical considerations, but also of economic importance,” said the researchers on the study.
New Zealand’s iconic penguin is dying due to climate change and ‘unregulated tourism’
The yellow-eyed penguin is the rarest species of penguins in the world, with only an estimated of 1,700 breeding pairs remaining. Around 60 percent of the population is thought to be in the sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands, while the remaining 40 percent of yellow-eyed penguins inhabit the southeastern coastline of New Zealand’s South Islands.
The researchers said most New Zealand’s penguin species including the yellow-eyed ones had undergone significant population declines in the last century, and climate change is believed to have played a major role. The penguins also have to undergo the normal anthropogenic threats, such as predators.
The scientists used data collected between 1982 and 2015 from one of the yellow-eyed penguins’ mainland strongholds to develop a population model that integrated observed population changes with the major climatic variables. They noted that they lacked data to quantify human impacts on the birds, but they believe “unregulated tourism” has caused pollution and habitat destruction.
“Considering that climate change explains only around a third of the variation in penguin numbers, clearly those other factors [caused by humans] play a significant role,” said Dr. Thomas Mattern, the study’s lead author from the University of Otago, according to EurekAlert. “Unlike climate change, these factors could be managed on a regional scale.”
Effective conservation measures are needed to protect the endangered penguin
According to Professor Phil Seddon, Director of Wildlife Management at the University of Otago believes the study not only shed an alarming light on the state of the yellow-eyed penguin in New Zealand, but it also underlined the importance of long-term data sets.
Seddon noted that in the current era of fast science, long-term projects had become a rarity. He added that without more than 35 years’ worth of penguin monitoring data they would probably be still at a loss as to what is happening to New Zealand’s national icon, the Yellow-eyed penguin.
Despite the endangered status of the birds, Yellow-eyed penguins continue to drown as unintentional bycatch in nets set in foreign penguin areas, according to the researchers. The penguins also suffer from degradation of their marine habitat because of human activity, and they die from unknown toxins in the water, caused by human pollution and contamination.
The authors finished their study noting that now people know the species is “quietly slipping away” they need to make a choice. They added that without immediate, bold and efficient conservation measures, New Zealand will lose the penguins from its coasts in a few years.