Wipeout of penguin chicks dubbed ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet’

An environmental group has likened the death of thousands of penguin chicks to a hypothetical film it has dubbed “Tarantino does Happy Feet”.

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Almost the entire cohort of chicks from an Adelie penguin colony in the eastern Antarctic was wiped out by starvation last summer in what scientists say is only the second such incident in more than 40 years, research found.

The WWF, which supported the research, urged governments meeting in Hobart, Australia, this week to approve a new marine protection area off East Antarctica.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(WWF/PA)</figcaption>

Rod Downie, head of polar programmes for the group’s British branch, said the impact of losing thousands of chicks was dramatic for an otherwise hardy species such as Adelie penguins.

“It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adelie Land,” he said.

Happy Feet was a feel-good animated film about a dancing penguin – a world away from the violence and death usually seen in Quentin Tarantino films.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Adelie penguins in Antarctica (WWF/PA)</figcaption>
Adelie penguins in Antarctica (WWF/PA)

Researchers believe the mass deaths occurred because unusually large amounts of sea ice forced penguin parents to travel further in search of food for their young. By the time they returned, only two out of thousands of chicks had survived.

“Not only did the chick starve but the partner (which stayed behind) also had to endure a long fast,” said Yan Ropert-Coudert, a marine ecologist with the French science agency CNRS.

Ropert-Coudert, who leads the study of seabirds at the Dumont D’Urville Antarctic research station, said the Adelie colony there numbers about 18,000 pairs which have been monitored since the 1960s. A similar breeding loss was observed for the first time during a 2013-2014 research expedition.

“It is unusual because of the size of the population concerned. Zero breeding success years have been noted before elsewhere, but never for colonies of this size.”

Sea ice extent in the polar regions varies each year, but climate change has made the fluctuation more extreme.

Ropert-Coudert said creating a protection zone in the D’Urville Sea-Mertz region, where the colony is located, would not prevent larger-than-usual sea ice, but it might ease the pressure on penguins from tourism and over-fishing.

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