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The Gap Year Blog

The Conservation Status Of Christmas Wildlife

28 Dec 2016 00:00 AM

Colder weather is no problem for well adapted winter species around Christmas time, but what threatens the species that we usually associate with the festive season? Light pollution, climate change and hunting just to name a few but there are also conservation success stories, providing hope for those species brave enough to face the frost.


As another staple of Christmas card iconography penguins, usually Emperor, King or Adelie, are often depicted in their snowy Antarctic home. However there are many species of penguins around the world, some of which in dire need of conservation.

For instance the Yellow-eyed penguins of New Zealand are classified as Endangered by the IUCN due to the dwindling quality of habitat across their limited range and depredation by introduced predators, leading to overall population decline.

They’re not the only endangered penguin either; Galapagos Penguins were classified as such in 2012. Similar to the Yellow-eyed their decline is due to limited range, but Galapagos Penguins are also extremely sensitive to El Nino-Southern Oscillation events. ENSO consists of two phases; El Nino is responsible for the global shift of warm, nutrient-poor water whilst La Nina is the opposite, cycling colder mineral rich water. The Oscillation begins at the equator, right on the penguins’ doorstep. The stronger the El Nino, the more intense the perturbation of fish shoals to more nutritious waters. Individuals are therefore forced further offshore in the search for food. This has resulted in a rapid decline of mature individuals as those who choose to breed are overworked, risking their lives, and those who choose not to can swim farther for food, but abstain from reinforcing population number.   

The IUCN report quotes a 30% probability of extinction in the next 100 years after reviewing the frequency of El Nino events between 1965 and 2004 however, ENSO events in the near-future are predicted to increase in magnitude and frequency as a result of climate change, potentially pushing them closer to the edge of extinction.

Wild Turkey

The Turkey is probably the top animal associated with the festive season, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing for these birds. Although wild populations are now stable across their range, they were once down to just 30,000 individuals across North America. Their recovery is considered one of the greatest avian conservation success stories.

The shocking population decrease was caused by overexploitation through excessive hunting and widespread habitat destruction as European settlers established throughout Central and North America. The large decline was recognised in the 1930s spurring the creation of protected natural areas for the species and the introduction of game hunting laws. Since then environmental agencies across the U.S have worked alongside the National Wild Turkey Federation, helping to restore degraded habitat and assisting in the capture and relocation thousands of wild turkeys into preserved turkey habitat.

These successful conservation efforts have resulted in a current population of over 7million wild turkeys.

Arctic Fox

Although the IUCN conservation status of the Arctic Fox is Least Concern, there may be problems in the future, as climate change has led to wetter winters reducing the snow they rely on for hunting and for their winter camouflage.

This could have profound effects as it not only diminishes the range of the fox, but also desynchronise their seasonal fur change. Arctic foxes change their colour from the brown that matches the baron, rocky tundra in the summer, to the white that blends into the heavy snowfall in winter. This provides year round camouflage protection from predators. The change comes about through changes in external stimuli, i.e. temperature shift or fewer daylight hours, triggering a hormonal response. These hormones produce different biochromes which change the fox’s fur colour, but because the Arctic is warming 6 times faster than anywhere else on Earth, the colour change may become desynchronised; turning white with little or no snow, exposing the fox to predators.


Featured on almost every UK Christmas card, Britain’s favourite bird the Robin has been under stress recently. A new report by Southampton University found that anthropological factors such as urban lighting and noise pollution affected the territorial behaviour of the popular garden species.

The study looked at territories with varying levels of noise and light pollution then attributed a hierarchy of territorial aggression. Those with territories close to night-lit roads and paths exhibited less aggression when introduced to a dummy rival. Further study is required as to why night-time lighting affects robins in this way; hypotheses range from desynchronization with night/day cycles to increased stress from light and noise pollution. More experiments are also needed to determine if artificial light affects the species more than urban noise or vice versa, as it could affect breeding.

This study could play a pivotal role in ensuring the survival of urban robins, vocalising the issue and, once the true cause is determined, hopefully leading to more harmonious city planning.         

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By Thomas Phillips - Online Journalism Intern