Why have almost a million king penguins disappeared from the ‘Island of Pigs?

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The largest king penguin colony in the world on the Pigs Islands, the Crozet sub-Antarctic archipelago, has lost much of its population.

Aerial photographs of the Île aux Cochons or better known as The Island of Pigs that houses thousands and thousands of penguins have worried the world as it shows that half a million pairs of king penguins and their chicks have disappeared.

In early 2017, researcher Henri Weimerskirch was sent to take photos of this area and was greatly surprised to discover that the colony has lost 88% of its population, which constitutes a third of the king penguins around the world. 

Specialists reported that of the 2 million birds that lived on this island, only 60,000 couples capable of reproduction have survived. Compared to the 1980s, the number of penguins capable of breeding was 500,000, and now they only number more than half.

This situation worried the scientific community of the Center for Biological Studies of Chizé (France) decided to do an in situ exploration to investigate what has happened to the king penguin pairs and their chicks.


The team of Henri Weimerskirch decided to devise an expedition to collect samples in situ. In November 2019 they arrived at the island of pigs, in the middle of the king penguin nesting season. There they were welcomed by thousands of chicks, but they also came across large areas of rock where thousands of birds had once flocked.

During the long breeding season, parents share tasks, such as hatching eggs or raising their chicks. Besides, they take turns to get food, jumping into the sea to fish. These trips can cover up to 500 kilometers or more.

Specialists placed locators on ten penguins to see if, indeed, the change in diet when they did not find food nearby was the explanation for the incredible disappearance of the species on the Island of Pigs. Night vision cameras were also installed to see if the number of chick predators had grown. Finally, they collected feathers and unearthed bones to look for possible causes of the disappearance, such as disease.

Thanks to these actions, the researchers have managed to rule out some reasons. For example, the predators don’t seem to have had anything to do with it, since the bones found have no signs of bites. Nor did the cameras record significant attacks.


One of the hypotheses that has been discarded thanks to this experiment is that they have moved to a nearby island, however when making the balance there were only 17,000 pairs, which was not enough to explain the massive fall of the main group of the Island of the Pigs.

The researchers concluded that the disease did not seem to be the cause either, since they saw few birds with any recent pathology or carcasses. However, the team suspects that perhaps the answer lies in the changes in the increasingly hot ocean, which pushed them to search for food hundreds of kilometers away, increasing the danger of the road. This also means that their young are more exposed to predators or hunger. If the rise in water temperatures is the reason, the problem is more and more likely to get worse and worse, the scientists say.

This study has revealed a very strong indicator, and that is that some of these animals did not go south, as predicted because there is more food; but to the north, where a priori there would be less food due to the condition of the waters. This may indicate that hunting is thriving in this area, which is actually a worrying symptom of warming waters.

However, the exact reasons for the disappearance of the penguins on Isla de los Cerdos are still unknown.

Why have almost a million king penguins disappeared from the 'Island of Pigs?

Photograph of penguins on January 17, 2020, on King George Island, in Antarctica. (EFE / Federico Anfitti)


Photograph of penguins on January 17, 2020, on King George Island, in Antarctica. (EFE / Federico Anfitti)

Penguin in Antarctica (PHOTOS: OSCAR PAZ)


Source: Mag el Comercio