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U of M study: 'March of Penguins' may be wrong, birds adapting

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New research from the University of Minnesota says the future of emperor penguins is perhaps not as bleak as previously believed.

Researchers have long thought that emperor penguins, the only penguins to live on sea ice, were philopatric, or returned to the same location to nest year after year.

This habit, along with climate change that's melting sea ice, has led researchers to say there has been a decline in the number of penguins in the Pointe Géologie colony in Antarctica. That's the group that was famously featured in the documentary, "March of the Penguins."

But new research from the U of M suggests the penguins have moved around, in effect adapting to changing environments – which seems to contradict an assertion in the critically acclaimed movie that the penguins are gravely endangered by climate change.

Researchers in this new study tracked a "climate-driven march" by examining the penguins' poop stains using high-resolution satellite imagery.

“Our research showing that colonies seem to appear and disappear throughout the years challenges behaviors we thought we understood about emperor penguins,” said University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering researcher and the study's lead author Michelle LaRue said, according to the release.

Before seeing these satellite images, researchers thought Pointe Géologie was isolated and penguins never moved to other breeding grounds, but U of M researchers found six instances in three years in which emperor penguins didn't return to the same place to nest – meaning that it's possible those penguins didn't die, but just moved away from Pointe Géologie, the release says.

Researchers also found plenty of colonies that were within easy traveling distance for the penguins and a newly discovered colony on the Antarctic Peninsula that may represent the relocation of penguins, the release says.

“If we assume that these birds come back to the same locations every year, without fail, these new colonies we see on satellite images wouldn’t make any sense. These birds didn’t just appear out of thin air — they had to have come from somewhere else. This suggests that emperor penguins move among colonies," LaRue said in the release.

LaRue adds that this discovery is important to conserve the species. The U of M's study will be published in an upcoming issue of Ecography.

Other studies have also shown how penguins are adapting to climate change. The British Antarctic Survey found that emperor penguins were climbing 100-foot ice walls to find stable ice shelves to breed as sea ice retreats, Nature World News reports.

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