They’ve brought home Academy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and even a few Stanley Cups for Pittsburgh’s hockey team—all while clad in their famous tuxedos. Known to scientists by the family name Spheniscidae, to the rest of the world they are simply the charismatic penguin. Although they have widespread appeal, many penguin populations are in trouble. And ironically, their biggest fans—humans—are largely the cause.
The Southern Hemisphere is home to 18 species of penguin. They vary in size and appearance, based largely on the climate and geography of their habitat. These aquatic birds can be as large as the 75-pound, 4-foot-tall emperor penguin of Antarctica or as small as the 2-pound, 16-inch little blue of Australia and New Zealand. But despite their differences, all penguins have a few common characteristics. Although flightless, they are expert swimmers and can dive deep and travel long distances underwater. And their distinctive black-and-white coloring that looks like formal wear is countershading that protects them from predators by blending their backs and bellies with the sea or the sky.
Over millions of years, penguins have adapted to the icy waters of the Southern Ocean and to the tropical climate of the Galapagos Islands. But now they are facing their biggest challenge: interference from people. As reported in the recent book Penguins: Natural History and Conservation, climate change, habitat degradation, the introduction of nonnative predators, oil pollution, and depletion of their food sources through overfishing are straining penguin populations. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, most penguin species are in decline.
But it isn't too late. The Pew Charitable Trusts has worked closely with many organizations, including the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, the Global Penguin Society, and Oceanites, to develop a base of scientific information that will inform policy decisions aimed at helping penguins survive and thrive into the future.
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