The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized protections for the emperor penguin, a flightless seabird endemic to Antarctica, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The emperor penguin is listed as a threatened species and includes a section 4(d) rule that tailors protections for the species. The impact of climate change on sea-ice habitat, where the species spends the majority of its life, is the primary threat to the penguin.
“This listing reflects the growing extinction crisis and highlights the importance of the ESA and efforts to conserve species before population declines become irreversible,” said Service Director Martha Williams. “Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world and addressing it is a priority for the Administration. The listing of the emperor penguin serves as an alarm bell but also a call to action.”
Emperor penguins need sea ice to form breeding colonies, forage for food, and avoid predation. As carbon dioxide emissions rise, the Earth’s temperature will continue to increase, and the related reduction of sea ice could affect a variety of species, including emperor penguins, who rely on the ice for survival.
While emperor penguin populations appear to be currently stable, the Service has determined the species is in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future in a significant portion of its range. There are approximately 61 breeding colonies along the coastline of Antarctica, and the species’ population size is estimated to be between 270,000 – 280,000 breeding pairs or 625,000 – 650,000 individual birds.
However, according to the best available science, by 2050 their global population size will likely decrease by 26 percent (to approximately 185,000 breeding pairs) to 47 percent (to approximately 132,500 breeding pairs) under low and high carbon emissions scenarios, respectively.
The estimated decrease in population size is not equal across Antarctica. The Ross and Weddell Seas are strongholds for the species, and populations in these areas will most likely remain stable. However, emperor penguin colonies within the Indian Ocean, Western Pacific Ocean, and Bellingshausen Sea and Amundsen Sea sectors are projected to decline by over 90 percent due to melting sea ice.
While this estimated decline is concerning, listing the emperor penguin as threatened under the ESA comes while there is still time to prevent the species from extinction.
The emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species. Adults may weigh up to 88 pounds and are as tall as 45 inches. Males and females are similar in plumage and size, although males are slightly larger than females.
Females lay one egg each breeding season, which males incubate on their feet for two months while females go to sea to feed. Once the egg hatches, males and females alternate between chick rearing duties and food gathering until the chick can regulate its temperature, and then both adults forage simultaneously to provide enough food for their growing chick. Chicks depart the colony after about 150 days, returning at four years of age to breed for the first time at age five.
To allow for further conservation of the species, the emperor penguin listing includes a section 4(d) rule that streamlines ESA compliance by providing exceptions for activities permitted by the National Science Foundation under the Antarctic Conservation Act.
The final rule to list the emperor penguin as threatened under the ESA will publish in the Federal Register Oct. 26, 2022, and will be effective 30 days after publication. More information on the final rule is available at www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS-HQ-ES-2021-0043.
The Service uses the best available science to make ESA listing determinations and is required to list imperiled species as endangered or threatened regardless of their country of origin. The ESA provides numerous benefits to foreign species, primarily by prohibiting activities such as import, export, take, interstate commerce and foreign commerce. By regulating these activities, the United States helps conserve imperiled species across the world.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.