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The flightless birds breed on the ice, but their babies cannot survive in the Antarctic waters until they shed their down feathers. Global warming puts them in danger of being wiped out, as ice floes break up, sending the youngsters plunging into the freezing depths.
This happened to colonies at Halley Bay and Cape Crozier in recent years, when sea ice broke up early before chicks were ready to swim, resulting in the drowning deaths of thousands of chicks.
And the emperor penguin colony population at Point Géologie, featured in the film March of the Penguins, has declined by nearly 50 percent.
Officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service warn that the population across the Antarctic is likely to drop at least 26 percent by 2050. And they say that as things stand it will almost certainly be wiped out by the end of this century.
Service director Martha Williams said: “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.”
It is hoped that the decision to list the birds will encourage governments to take action and to fund conservation efforts.
Shaye Wolf from America’s Centre for Biological Diversity said: “This is a big win for these beloved, iconic penguins and all of us who want them to thrive.
“At the same time, this decision is a warning that emperor penguins need urgent climate action if they’re going to survive.”
America’s Endangered Species Act is credited with bringing several animals back from the brink of extinction, including grizzly bears, bald eagles, and grey whales.
Stephanie Jenouvrier, a scientist and seabird ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, USA, said: “Emperor penguins, like many species on Earth, face a very uncertain future, which is dependent on people working together to reduce carbon pollution.
“We should draw inspiration from the penguins themselves; only together can penguins brave the harshest climate on Earth, and only together can we face a difficult climate future.”
Emperor penguins are the biggest of the 18 penguin species found today and stand at approximately 1.2m tall (about the height of a six-year-old child) and weigh in at around 40kg, though their weight does fluctuate throughout the year.
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