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Jan 30, 2014 12:12 PM EST

Climate Change May Be Killing Penguin Chicks In Argentina

Magellanic Penguins
(Photo : University of Washington) Penguin chicks from the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins are dying off due to the indirect and direct effects of climate change, according to a recent study.

Penguin chicks from the world's largest colony of Magellanic penguins are dying off due to the indirect and direct effects of climate change, according to a recent study LiveScience reported.

Researchers from the University of Washington found that global warming does not just affect penguins indirectly - by depriving them of food - but directly as a result of torrential downpours and abnormal heat.

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"Too big for parents to sit over protectively, but still too young to have grown waterproof feathers, downy penguin chicks exposed to drenching rain can struggle and die of hypothermia in spite of the best efforts of their concerned parents," researchers said in a statement. "And during extreme heat, chicks without waterproofing can't take a dip in cooling waters as adults can."

For the study, researchers monitored a colony of about 400,000 Magellanic penguins in Argentina for 27 years. During the breeding season, researchers visited penguin nests once or twice a day to record the contents of the nest, often hunting for chicks when they move around as they get older. They also assessed the overall status of the colony and the health of the chicks once they hatched in late November or early December, according to a press release.

During the span of 27 years, an average of 65 percent of chicks died per year, with some 40 percent starving.  Researchers said climate change, a relatively new cause of chick death, killed 7 percent of chicks per year. However, there were years when climate change was the most common cause of death, killing 43 percent of all chicks one year and fully half in another.

Rainfall and the number of storms per breeding season have already increased at the Argentine study site, Ginger Rebstock, research scientist and the co-author of the paper, said in the study.

In the first two weeks of December, when all chicks are less than 25 days old and most vulnerable to storm death, the number of storms increased between 1983 and 2010, researchers said.

"We're going to see years where almost no chicks survive if climate change makes storms bigger and more frequent during vulnerable times of the breeding season as climatologists predict," Rebstock said.

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