Let’s Take Care of the Messengers

ImageHow adorable are penguins, right?  I can’t help but smile every time I see Mumble’s parents fall in love during the opening song of Happy Feet.  Who wouldn’t?

Well, good news for the penguin population!  According to a recent study, the Emperor Penguin population in Antarctica is thriving. Based on a survey of 46 penguin colonies, there are approximately 595,000 Emperor Penguins currently living in Antarctica.  Compared with previous estimates (which ranged from 270,000 to 350,000), this number is very encouraging.  Penguins have not officially been designated an endangered species, but they are considered “a bellweather of any future climate changes in Antarctica because their icy habitat is so sensitive to rising temperatures.”

Scientists predict that if environmental conditions change and global temperatures rise, the icy Antarctic habitat could begin to diminish, thus endangering the lives of these penguins.  So, if we begin to see a plummeting penguin population (awesome alliteration, by the way), we will know that the climate is changing enough to case significant warming at the Earth’s southern pole.  For this reason, penguins are known as an “indicator species.”

Indicator species serve as biomonitors, or sentinels of environmental change, because they tend to be very sensitive and thus react to changes before other members of an ecosystem.  Hence, a decrease in the number of penguins in Antarctica could be a warning of climate change.  But, indicator species do not just apply to climate change; they can also indicate pollution, disease outbreak, or species competition.  Mussels are used to gauge pollution levels throughout U.S. coastal and Great Lakes waters.  By looking at contaminant levels in the tissues of mussels throughout these areas (through a program called “Mussel Watch”), the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment is able to quantify harmful substances within these bodies of water, analyze trending patterns, and gauge how natural and anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) events affect the contaminant levels.

Basically, indicator species are very cool.  They give us insight into various ecosystems and can serve as a warning that a natural system is out of balance.

It is great news that the penguin population is thriving in Antarctica.  However, because this is really the first comprehensive survey of their numbers, we really have no idea how this figure compares to historical population levels.  So, I’m glad that we have no many tuxedo-clad birds hanging out at the South Pole – we just need to make sure that they stay there :).

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