Gentoo penguins are four species, not one

The penguin is known for its red-orange beak and white face patches

Scientists are calling for a shake-up of the penguin kingdom, saying the gentoo penguin is four species, not one.

According to new evidence, the birds are slightly different in shape and size, and can be told apart by their DNA.

Counting them as separate species will help in conservation, they argue, making it easier to monitor declines.

The change would raise the tally of penguin species from 18 to 21.

Dr Jane Younger of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath told BBC News: “Superficially, these species look very similar to each other; it’s very hard to tell them apart just with your eyes.

“But if we sequence their genomes we can see very clearly that they are different. We also can tell based on different measurements.”

Penguins face a number of threats in the wild, including plastic pollution, over-fishing and climate change. When it comes to climate change, gentoos are faring relatively well compared with other penguin species, but scientists say some populations have not been monitored for decades.

Numbers are increasing on the Antarctic Peninsula but have fallen on some surrounding islands.

“Currently gentoo penguins are fairly stable in numbers, however there is some evidence of the northern populations moving further south as the climate gets warmer, so we need to watch them closely,” said Dr Younger.

Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, gentoo penguins have become isolated from each other to the point where they don’t interbreed, even though they could easily swim the distance that separates them.

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