Oct. 9 (UPI) -- In the coming decades, Antarctica's most iconic resident, the emperor penguin, will face a variety of growing threats. To curb the species' decline and prevent its disappearance, a new study is calling for special protections and bolder conservation efforts.
Climate models suggest shifting wind patterns and rising temperatures are likely to reduce the amount of sea ice available to emperor penguins for breeding.
To predict the effects of climate change on the species, scientists analyzed more than 150 studies on the relationship between the penguin's environment and its behavior. Some studies suggest Antarctica's emperor penguin population could decline by 50 percent by the end of the century.
Currently, the emperor penguin is listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but authors of the new survey -- published this week in the journal Biological Conservation -- argue the species should be reclassified on the IUCN Red List as "vulnerable."
"The current rate of warming in parts of the Antarctic is greater than anything in the recent glaciological record," Philip Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey, said in a news release. "Though emperor penguins have experienced periods of warming and cooling over their evolutionary history, the current rates of warming are unprecedented."
Trathan and his colleagues aren't sure how the penguins will respond to the loss of their breeding grounds.
Earlier this year, scientists reported the failure of the second largest emperor penguin colony on Earth after three years of dramatic sea ice loss forced the colony to disband and disperse.
Some of the penguins likely relocated to colonies using more stable breeding grounds, but migration isn't easy for emperor penguins.
"They are not agile and climbing ashore across steep coastal land forms will be difficult," Trathan said. "For breeding, they depend upon sea ice, and in a warming world there is a high probability that this will decrease. Without it, they will have little or no breeding habitat."
In addition to altering the species' IUCN Red List status, authors of the new paper suggest the emperor penguin be named by the Antarctic Treaty as an Antarctic Specially Protected Species. The team of researchers also called for increased spatial protections at breeding sites and foraging locations, as well as the establishment of large-scale marine spatial protections.
"Some colonies of emperor penguins may not survive the coming decades, so we must work to give as much protection as we can to the species to give them the best chance," said Peter Fretwell, remote sensing specialist with the British Antarctic Survey.