The yellow-eyed penguin is at risk in New Zealand because of rising sea temperatures, but other local factors also threaten the iconic species. Thomas Mattern/University of Otago

An endangered penguin is at risk because of rising sea temperatures, but it might go extinct in the next few decades if humans don’t take steps to protect it from threats unrelated to climate change, scientists say.

Although warmer seas have an effect on the yellow-eyed penguin, an iconic animal in New Zealand that appears on money and travel advertisements, climate changes “are just some of multiple stressors affecting [the] species on a population level,” a study in the journal PeerJ said. In the case of this flightless bird, it faces threats from predators and humans that are cutting into its habitat, among other disturbances.

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The New Zealand Department of Conservation said the penguins are also known by their Māori name hoiho, which translates to “noise shouter” and came from the “shrill call made at breeding sites.” They need both marine and land habitats to survive. The marine habitat provides food and transportation, and while on land, they nest, grow new feathers and socialize. At the same time, the department noted, “yellow-eyed penguins are solitary creatures that seek privacy.”

The researchers in the study refer to the penguins as “quietly slipping away.”

They looked at how the kiwi penguin population changed over the last 30 years, and analyzed how those fluctuations were linked to recorded climate changes. The data showed sea surface temperature played a large role in penguin numbers, “influencing survival of both adult birds and fledglings.” It could be responsible for a whole third of the population variations, putting more pressure on the penguins and making them more susceptible to human conflicts.

But there are other factors to consider outside of climate change, and the scientists called for more research and environmental interventions to protect the native species from extinction.

Ignoring those outside pressures “creates the risk of an analytical bias towards climate impacts, thereby distracting from and potentially understating nonclimate threats,” the study said. And reducing regional, nonclimate pressures on the penguins could strengthen them and help them hold on in the face of the rising sea temperatures.

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Lead author Thomas Mattern said in a statement from the University of Otago that as the penguins move slowly toward extinction, their oblivion could be closer than we think — if, for example, there are any large die-offs like one in 2013 that saw 60 adult penguins perish.

“Any further losses of yellow-eyed penguins will bring forward the date of their local extinction,” he said. But it may not have to be within our lifetimes because when it comes to threats from fisheries, disease and habitat loss that “unlike climate change, these factors could be managed on a regional scale.”

According to numbers in the study, there are only about 1,700 breeding pairs of the yellow-eyed penguin, a population size that makes it “one of the rarest penguin species worldwide.”

“It is sobering to see the previously busy penguin breeding areas now overgrown and silent, with only the odd lonely pair hanging on,” yellow-eyed penguin researcher Ursula Ellenberg said in the Otago statement.