'Dead' Antarctica Penguins Are Probably Fine

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Let's give the penguins a little credit.

DNews digs into what researchers are discovering about the ice continent.
DCI

The news reported around the world was startling — that some 150,000 Adélie penguins have died in Antarctica because a colossal iceberg cut off their sea access.

But there's no proof yet that the birds are dead. No one has actually found 150,000 frozen penguins. In fact, experts think there's a less horrific explanation for the missing birds: When the fishing gets tough, penguins simply pick up and move. It wouldn't be the first time Adélie penguins marched to new digs. When an iceberg grounded in the southern Ross Sea in 2001, penguins on Ross Island relocated to nearby colonies until the ice broke up. [See Photos of Cape Denison and its Adélie Penguins]

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"Just because there are a lot fewer birds observed doesn't automatically mean the ones that were there before have perished," said Michelle LaRue, a penguin population researcher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who was not involved in the study. "They easily could have moved elsewhere, which would make sense if nearby colonies are thriving," LaRue told Live Science in an email interview.

The misplaced penguins lived at a colony on Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, in East Antarctica. In mid-February 2010, the Rhode Island-sized iceberg B09B crashed into the bay's Mertz Glacier. The stranded iceberg forced the penguins to walk more than 37 miles (60 kilometers) for food, researchers report in a new study. The greater the distance to dinner, the harder it is for baby chicks to get enough calories from their penguin parents. [Infographic: Your Guide to Antarctica]

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Since 2011, the original colony of 150,000 penguins has shrunk to around 10,000 birds, according to the new study, published Feb. 2 in the journal Antarctic Science. The authors, from Australia's University of New South Wales, predict the Cape Denison colony will disappear in 20 years unless the ice clears.

"I don't think any of us anticipated what we saw: the ground was littered with dead chicks and discarded eggs. What had been until recently a noisy, raucous colony was now eerily quiet. It was heartbreaking to visit," study co-author Chris Turney, of the University of New South Wales Australia, told Live Science in an email interview.

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But LaRue counters that Adélie penguin colonies always have dead birds scattered around because the carcasses don't decompose in Antarctica's dry, cold climate. Researchers have discovered mummified penguins and seals that are centuries old.

"I do not know what happened to these birds, but no one does for certain," LaRue said. "The fact that so many birds gone from this location is really interesting."

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