How Far the Penguins Should March

Meghan Bialt-DeCelie ’19

Figure 1.  A mathematical model predicts a grim future for emperor penguins under all scenarios of migration.

The effects of Global Climate Change can dramatically alter the environment as well as the organisms which inhabit it. One species that is particularly affected by climate change is the emperor penguin (EP), so much so that researchers from the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) believe they should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The random and unpredictable nature of climate change can impact the life cycle of EPs as too much or too little sea ice affects chick survival.

In response to the rapidly changing climate, EPs have shown ability to disperse or migrate to more favorable conditions. A study run by WHOI and led by Stephanie Jenouvrier PhD worked to develop a metapopulation model that can predict scenarios and outcomes of EP colonies dispersing in response to the dynamic environment. The model took into account both the choice of habitat (informed choice vs. random choice) that colonies could migrate to, the distance traveled to get to the new habitat and the amount of EPs that would migrate as opposed to staying. These factors allowed the model to predict the possible change in EP population under various scenarios.

The model determined that from 2010 to 2036, populations could decline as if no dispersion of the population occurred. From 2036 to 2050, dispersion can reduce population decline and possibly reverse it. The model determined that the more EPs that disperse, the greater increase in overall population, especially if they disperse along longer distances. The model predicted that from 2050 to 2088, the EP population would decrease, even more so if dispersal is more random than informed. From 2088 to 2100, the population would decline, however the rate can vary. The biggest factor that can sway the changes in population of EPs is the rate of emigration, or the number of EPs in a population that decide to migrate.  The model found this can affect the outcome of the population fate more than the distance and how random the migration is.

The grim future of the sea ice levels due to climate change do not give a promising future for the EP population. Models like this can provide an idea of which migration patterns will be most effective, but addressing the rapidly changing climate is most likely the best hope for keeping EPs off the Endangered Species List.


  1. S. Jenouvrier, et al., Influence of dispersal processes on the global dynamics of Emperor penguin, a species threatened by climate change. Biological Conservation (2017). doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.05.017
  2. Image retrieved from:

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