'Happy Feet' Not So Happy

While a young emperor penguin named Mumble and his friends dance in animated joy rocking movie houses across the United States in the hit film "Happy Feet," many of their real life counterparts are struggling to stay alive, say scientists and environmental groups.

"These animals that have wiggled and tap danced their way into the hearts of people around the country are in serious trouble," Josh Reichert, director of the Environment Division of the Pew Charitable Trust, told ABC News.

Extensive over-fishing, human encroachment, and effects of global warming appear to be having a devastating cumulative effect on many penguins, say experts.

Of the world's 19 penguin species, 12 are now so threatened they need special protection, according to the wildlife advocacy group the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Center is filing a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list all 12 penguin species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

They include the world's largest penguin, the emperor, whose midwinter travails and incubation rituals also filled movie houses in the record-breaking documentary "March of the Penguins."

"The emperor colony in that movie has declined by about 50 percent over the past half-century," scientist Paul Ponganis told ABC.

Ponganis, who makes regular trips to study emperors in Antarctica from his base at San Diego's Scripps Oceanographic Institution, cautions that the colony is the only one out of about 40 emperor colonies with records going back that far, "so we don't know yet exactly how stressed the species as a whole is, but it's not a good sign."

Same Plight as Polar Bears -- Less Sea Ice

Ponganis, who studies the emperors' remarkable ability to dive 1,640 feet in search of food and hold their breath for 20 minutes, reports that the 4-foot tall birds are threatened by commercial fishing and, almost certainly, by the long-range effects of global warming that is melting sea-ice.

"emperors breed and incubate their eggs in the middle of winter," he says, "because they do it all on the frozen sea surface."

If the sea-ice freezes too late in autumn or breaks up too early in spring, the chicks won't be old enough to swim, he explains, "so the long-term projections for global warming are a serious threat."

Early sea-ice break up in recent years is consistent with many projections of the effects of global warming, and scientists are not optimistic.

Climate scientists around the world agree that even in the best case scenarios, the earth is virtually certain to warm at least another two degrees Fahrenheit due to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

Emperors and other penguin species also need floating sea-ice to rest on during their long fishing forays.

Penguins, which are found only in the southern hemisphere, thus appear to face the same problem global warming has already brought to the north pole -- less and less frozen sea surface or "sea-ice" -- which polar bears, found only at the north end of the planet, must have to stand on as they hunt seals, their main food.

Farmed Salmon We Eat Are Fed Penguins' Food

"'Happy Feet' ends on a note that implies the threat to the penguins has been fixed," says Reichert. "But it's not the reality -- it's getting worse."

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