galapagos penguins

Galapagos Penguins by Nancy Ney is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A new study led by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution suggests that Galapagos penguins may be among a handful of species that are actually benefiting from the effects of global climate change.

According to the study, an undersea river called the Equatorial Undercurrent, which flows into the western side of Fernandina and Isabela Islands (where the vast majority of Galapagos penguins live), has changed course and now hits the islands further to the north than it has in the past. The changing current has expanded the pool of nutrient-rich cold water farther along the coasts of the two islands and increased the supply of fish available for the penguins to eat.

With more fish to eat over the past three decades the penguins have been able to successfully hatch and rear more chicks to adulthood. As a result, their numbers have bounced back from just a few hundred individuals 15 years ago to over 1,000 today.

The researchers believe that the change in the current’s course is the result of shifting trade winds and changing water temperatures, which may be attributable to the effects of global climate change. The researchers made the connection between the shifting current and the growing penguin population by analyzing satellite data of sea surface temperatures with yearly penguin census counts.

The Galapagos penguin is the only penguin native to the northern hemisphere and the world’s most endangered penguin species. There were around 2,000 penguins roaming the Galapagos as recently as the 1980s, but a severe El Niño event caused a drastic warming of ocean temperatures, which caused fish stocks to collapse. Introduced predators, including dogs, cats and rats, further depleted their numbers.

It is important to remember that while climate change may be good news for Galapagos penguins and a handful of other species, at least for now, overall it is wreaking a devastating toll on our oceans. Coral bleaching, acidification, and drowning wetlands are just a few of the impacts that climate change is already having on oceans worldwide.