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The largest king penguin colony to see a catastrophic decline

A king penguin, in the Cincinnati Zoo.

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The last time scientists visited the remote French island of Ile aux Cochons in the Indian Ocean, they found more than 2 million king penguins, including 500,000 breeding pairs.

That was in 1982, and gave the island the distinction of being the largest colony in the world. But in the first comprehensive new count since then, researchers report in Antarctic Science that only about 200,000 king penguins now inhabit the island.

Of which approximately 60,000 were in pairs, reports the BBC. The new figures are based on aerial photographs taken in 2015 and 2017 of the island, which sits between Antarctica and the tip of Africa, according to the Guardian.

For now, the researchers have no clear answer to what explains the population dip, although the follow-up on the field studies can shed light. “It is completely unexpected, and in particular significant, since this colony represent almost a third of the king penguins in the world,” said lead author Henri Weimerskirch of the Centre for Biological Studies in Chizé, France.

A theory about the weather: A particularly strong El Niño in the late 1990’s heated up regional waters and would have been pushing penguin prey such as fish and squid from the foraging range long enough to be able to have devastating effects on, for example, a dense population, according to a press release.

These effects might be strengthened against the larger background of the climate change in general, notes the Guardian. Other theories are diseases, such as avian cholera, or the arrival of invasive species, such as rats or mice.

(On the other hand, the researchers found a previously unknown colony of a different type of penguin.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Biggest king penguin Colony to See a Catastrophic Decline

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