Penguin chicks on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean suffer from a feather-loss disorder that presents a vicious threat to the birds’ survival.
Researchers believe that feather loss, which emerged recently and presents itself in penguin chicks off the coast of Africa and South America, is a new disease. Naked penguins face threats to survival because their lack of feathers makes it difficult to regulate body temperature. This constant fight to stay warm means they have to expend more energy than normal penguins and thus are significantly smaller in size and weight than normal.
But much about the disease remains a mystery that scientists are scrambling to solve before it’s too late. As researchers continue to observe the disorder, they realize with increasing urgency the need for more research to yield a solution.
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Feather loss has primarily been observed in African and Magellanic penguins, but researchers don’t know whether the same disease affects and spreads through the separate species. “Feather-loss disorders are uncommon in most bird species,” said Dee Boersma of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who has conducted studies on Magellanic penguins for more than three decades. Such studies revealed that the featherless chicks baked in the hot sun at times when their healthy counterparts stayed in the shade. Researchers observing both species of penguins noted that in addition to losing feathers, affected chicks have slower growth rates than normal penguins.
Although many penguins die from the disease the ones that do survive grow new feathers eventually. The cause for the disorder is entirely unknown, but according to the WCS, possibilities include pathogens, thyroid problems, nutrient imbalances, and genetics.
Another featherless penguin made headlines recently as well. Last year at Jurong Bird Park in Singapore, a 9-year-old Humboldt penguin suffered from rapid feather loss. The park attributed the condition to hormone imbalance or stress and solved the problem by creating a custom-made wetsuit that would keep Belle the penguin warm and boost feather growth. This scenario has appeared in other Humboldt penguins as well, at zoos all over the world.
Will scientists be able to solve the problem and save our favorite feathered friends?
(More on TIME.com: See pictures of penguins threatened by global warming)