Research of biologists published in Global Change Biology indicates that emperor penguins on Antarctica were forced into refugia by extreme cold during the last glacial maximum (~ 19.5 – 16 thousand years ago). By comparing the DNA of fossil emperor penguins with the DNA of living individuals and colonies, the scientists were able to reconstruct the population dynamics of emperor penguins on Antarctica through time. Their results show three mitochondrial clades within emperor penguins at the time of the last glacial maximum, which suggests that these birds were isolated in three small, separate populations and may have survived in refugia such as the Ross Sea. The population sizes of emperor penguins are related to the balance between sea ice available for breeding and open water available for foraging. Sea ice extent around Antarctica was much greater during the last glacial maximum than at present and therefore, reduced food availability resulted in severe losses among populations of emperor penguins.
Journal reference: Younger, J. L., Clucas, G. V., Kooyman, G., Wienecke, B., Rogers, A. D., Trathan, P. N., … & Miller, K. J. (2015). Too much of a good thing: sea ice extent may have forced emperor penguins into refugia during the last glacial maximum. Global change biology, 21(6), 2215-2226.
Image: Emperor penguin colony foraging along the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Source: Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons.