The lost colony

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Science  20 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6484, pp. 1318-1320
DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6484.1318

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Photographs taken by helicopter in 2017 revealed the world's biggest king penguin colony had unexpectedly lost 900,000 birds over several decades. The aggregation, sitting on the French island called Île aux Cochons, lies between Madagascar and Antarctica. Various colonies of the species, which numbers 3.2 million birds, are mostly rebounding from centuries of human hunting. But with more than half of the world's 18 penguin species declining in numbers, the collapse inspired scientists to investigate. In November 2019, a team conducted a 5-day expedition to the island, collecting tissue samples and tagging 10 birds with satellite transmitters. So far, the data suggest the warming waters that circle Antarctica may be the culprit. There, a thermal boundary where the penguins' prey lie has shifted away from their colony, making it harder to forage. The expedition also illustrates the logistical, political, and physical challenges of conducting biology on the bottom of the planet.

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