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Iceberg nearly decimates entire penguin population

In this photo taken on Jan. 6, 2011, an Adelie penguin is about to dive into the crack of the frozen seawater of the Antarctic Sea in search of food in Langhovde, about 13 miles south of the Showa Base of Japanese Antarctic expedition team.

AP Photo/Sankei Shimbun

Last Updated Feb 15, 2016 7:24 PM EST

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Scientists say an estimated 150,000 Adelie penguins have been wiped out on Antarctica's Cape Denison in the five years since a giant iceberg blocked their main access to food.

A study recently published in the journal Antarctic Science says the B09B iceberg crashed with the Mertz Glacier Tongue and got stuck in Commonwealth Bay, an area that was rarely covered by sea-ice, making it ideal for Adelie penguin colonies.

The B09B, with an area of about 1,120 square miles (2,900 square kilometers), blocked access to the penguins' natural feeding areas beginning in December 2010. The huge piece of ice forced the birds to walk more than 37 miles (60 kilometers) in search of food, gradually reducing the population to just a few thousand.

"We saw a lot of dead carcasses, particularly the young, which was terrible to see. But the really important thing is that the penguins are just not coming back to that area," Chris Fogwill, a co-author of the study, told The Associated Press on Monday.

The survey was conducted in 2013-14 by scientists at The Climate Change Research Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia and New Zealand's West Coast Penguin Trust.

Adelie penguins can be found throughout Antarctica. They are known for being sociable and gathering in groups as well as for their appearance as the classic tuxedoed penguin.

Researchers say it is hard to know how long it will take the Adelie penguins to recolonize the Commonwealth Bay area. The worst case scenario is that without their natural breeding cycle and lacking new members, the colony could die out in about 20 years.