1. In Polar Regions, the extent and dynamics of sea-ice are changing. This affects the ocean productivity which consecutively impacts plankton communities and polar top predators like penguins. Yet, the underlying behavioural and physiological mechanisms remain poorly understood.
2. Here we monitored the ecophysiological responses of Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) pairs during two seasons of contrasting timing of sea-ice retreat. Beside classical breeding parameters like foraging trip duration, body mass and reproductive success, we also investigated food-related stress (via plasma corticosterone concentration), nutritional state (via metabolite levels) and the use of penguins’ habitat (via blood isotopic values).
3. Body mass and reproductive success remained unchanged but foraging trips were shorter when sea-ice retreated earlier. Constant plasma corticosterone concentrations indicated that none of the feeding conditions resulted in a food-related stress. However metabolite levels were lower when sea-ice retreated early, suggesting that the foraging performance and the quality/quantity of food differed. Indeed isotopic ratios indicated that coastal prey like fish contributed more to the penguins’ diet when sea-ice retreated prematurely.
4. The early sea-ice retreat was related to higher chlorophyll concentrations, known to favour krill recruitment. Paradoxically, this was not associated to a higher krill contribution in the penguins’ diet. We propose that a shift in the phytoplankton quality (rather than quantity), affecting krill recruitment, forced penguins to switch to more available prey like coastal fish.
5. In some Antarctic regions, sea-ice is retreating earlier and earlier. In the present study, even though the timing of sea-ice retreat and the consecutive ocean productivity differed drastically between the 2 years, Adélie penguins were not severely affected because they were able to adjust their at-sea behaviour and thus maintained their body condition and reproductive success unchanged.
6. This suggests that the timing of sea-ice retreat does not represent an important threat to populations of Adélie penguins at least as long as alternative resources are still available and other environmental parameters like winter sea-ice extent are not dramatically altered.