In 1982, when scientists visited an island part of an archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean called the Ile aux Cochons, they found over 500,000 breeding pairs of king penguins out of a population of over 2 million king penguins.
Fast forward to 2017 and researchers from the journal Antarctic Science found that this number had dwindled down to just 59,200 – almost a 90% decrease in the population.
In just three decades, the figure has shrunk at an alarming rate and even the scientists aren’t so sure how that happened.
To find out how many penguins there were in 2017, scientists used a combination of high-resolution satellite imaging and photos taken from helicopters to get an accurate estimate.
The number was actually based of the square footage the penguins occupied as they huddled so close together.
King penguin populations on other islands in the archipelago had stayed more or less stable, so what happened to the penguins of Ile aux Cochons?
The researchers came up with a few possible scenarios in their paper for what could be the cause.
The first was down to evidence that feral cats and mice were found on the island in the 1970s, and these animals could have been the predators that hunted their prey: the penguins.
Parasites like ticks and diseases like avian cholera may also have affected the penguins, either killing them off or making it hard for babies to survive.
Climate change and over-fishing could be another plausible explanation. Since the king penguin’s favourite food is myctophid fishes, they would be hard-pressed to find them in that area anymore if they were over-fished or moved forcibly by the warming waters.
Though the king penguin is not yet endangered or on the list of animals that should could risk extinction, it is troubling to see how an entire population of the lovable creatures could have been almost destroyed in a few decades.
It is even more disconcerting that even with all the technology that we have at our disposal in this day and age, we still have no idea how that happened.