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Fifty-year change in penguin abundance on Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica: results of the 2019–20 census

Abstract

Elephant Island sits on the front lines of ecological change in the Scotia Arc region, but most of the island has remained unsurveyed for nearly 50 years. As a result, there has been no way to establish whether changes on the island reflect those to the south along the Western Antarctic Peninsula or whether, in contrast, populations have remained stable, as on the more northerly South Sandwich Islands. At the core of the Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus) breeding range, at the southern edge of the Macaroni Penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) and (very recently) King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) ranges, at the northern limit of the Adélie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) range, and in an area where Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua) populations are expanding southward, Elephant Island is situated at a unique ecological crossroads, hosting both sub-Antarctic and Antarctic seabirds, the former of which may be responding favorably to the very same climate changes that imperil the latter. Fortunately, an exhaustive census of the island in 1970–71 provides a rigorous baseline against which to document ecological change. Here, we report on the first complete survey of the island since 1970–71, conducted from January 9–20, 2020. Results indicate a decrease in Chinstrap Penguin populations, a doubling of Gentoo Penguins, a stable number of Macaroni Penguins, continuing occupancy by a few Adélie Penguins, and evidence of King Penguin breeding expansion. Our findings demonstrate that Elephant Island’s seabird community has changed dramatically over the past five decades and that these changes appear to be ongoing.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose support enabled the investigative team to conduct this research. We are grateful to Greenpeace International and the crew of the M/Y Esperanza for their tenacity and passion in supporting us in the field. We also thank Tom Hart and Norman Ratcliffe for helpful comments in reviewing this manuscript.

Funding

This study was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts with logistical support provided by Greenpeace International.

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation and data collection were performed by NS, AB, MW, SF, VS, and YL. Data analyses were conducted by NS, AB, MW, and HJL. The first draft of the manuscript was written by NS and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Noah Strycker.

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The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethics approval

This investigation involved no contact with animals. The protocol was approved by the Stony Brook University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IRBNet ID 237420). The field work was carried out under a permit granted by the National Science Foundation under the Antarctic Conservation Act (45 CFR §673 et seq.) with an initial environmental evaluation approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Federal Activities.

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Strycker, N., Borowicz, A., Wethington, M. et al. Fifty-year change in penguin abundance on Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica: results of the 2019–20 census. Polar Biol 44, 45–56 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-020-02774-4

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Keywords

  • Chinstrap Penguin
  • Gentoo Penguin
  • Adélie Penguin
  • Macaroni Penguin
  • King Penguin
  • South Shetland Islands
  • Antarctic Peninsula
  • Scotia Arc
  • Unmanned aerial vehicle