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Young penguins follow false food cues

Warming, other changes create ‘ecological trap,’ endangering seabirds’ survival

12:00pm, February 9, 2017
African penguins

PENGUIN PERIL  Juvenile African penguins (shown) forage for their own food when they leave the nest. Some from the Western Cape of South Africa become trapped in areas without any fish, a new study finds.

African penguins have used biological cues in the ocean for centuries to find their favorite fish. Now these cues are trapping juvenile penguins in areas with hardly any food, scientists report February 9 in Current Biology.

It’s the first known ocean “ecological trap,” which occurs when a once-reliable environmental cue instead, often because of human interference, prompts an animal to do something harmful.

When juvenile Spheniscus demersus penguins off the Western Cape of South Africa leave the nest for their maiden voyage at sea, they head for prime penguin hunting grounds. But the fish are no longer there, says Richard Sherley, a marine ecologist with the University of Exeter Environment and Sustainability Institute. Increased ocean temperatures, changes in salinity and overfishing have driven the fish eastward.

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