The birds starved to death.
When scientists opened the stomachs of 11 young penguins that washed up on beaches in northern New Zealand, 10 had nothing in their guts and one had a small amount of grass, according to the South China Morning Post.
It was a stark confirmation that these birds — and scores of others — had starved to death.
Over the past two weeks, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation’s Tauranga office has received at least 58 calls of little penguins washing up on the shores of Omaha Beach and Tawharanui Peninsula during a record marine heat wave and tropical storms in the Tasman Sea, SCMP reports.
The penguins were all emaciated, a clear sign of starvation, and follow-up analysis by a team at Massey University proved that most of the penguins had entirely depleted their fat reserves and were beginning to digest muscle, according to the New Zealand Herald.
This mass starvation, according to the scientists, is because of freak weather patterns driven by climate change that made it hard for the penguins to find food after “moulting,” when birds shed feathers to make room for new growth.
“We are concerned that with climate disruption causing high sea temperatures, summer storms could become more common and what has been previously seen as a one in 20-year event could become more frequent,” Dr. Karen Baird, forest and bird expert, told SCMP.
“Populations like little blue penguins and other species can recover from infrequent bad events by breeding, but if it happens much more frequently, the population doesn’t get a chance to recover,” she said.
The scientists fear that the collected corpses are just the tip of the iceberg and that many more birds have been killed or are threatened by the extreme conditions, SCMP notes.
Hundreds of other animals, including shearwaters, petrels, fair prions, and shags, washed on shores in recent weeks as well, additional casualties of the heat wave and storms.
The penguin sightings, however, were strange enough to spur local residents to notify the Department of Conservation who then investigated the situation.
All around the world, bird species are being endangered by environmental degradation, with more than 1,476 threatened with extinction.
The scientists at the Department of Conservation said that the debilitating heat wave was so extreme that it goes beyond predictions for 2050, suggesting that the climate change is intensifying climatic patterns more deeply than previously thought.
“I think it’s a wake-up call that we can’t expect always to have penguins, unless we start to think more about how we can actively manage them,” Baird said.