Mass starvation has wiped out almost an entire colony of 40,000 penguins in east Antarctica, but two of them miraculously survived the breeding season under punishing climactic conditions. The mass deaths of the Adélie penguins have forced environmentalists to call for the urgent protection of the Antarctic ecosystem.

This is the second time in four years that a large colony of penguins has collapsed in a devastation not observed in more than five decades. As many as 18,000 pairs of Adélie penguins — which typically lay two eggs per pair — were killed in January this year, French scientists discovered.

The deaths were caused by the unusual formation of extensive sea ice, which makes it extremely difficult for the penguins to travel to the sea and return with food. Thousands of unhatched eggs and lifeless chicks were found in what is known as Adélie Land.

No penguins survived during the earlier spell of starvation that occurred in 2013. There has reportedly been a sharp decline in Adélie penguin numbers in the Antarctic Peninsula.

"The region is impacted by environmental changes that are linked to the breakup of the Mertz glacier since 2010. A marine protected area will not remedy these changes but it could prevent further impacts that direct anthropogenic pressures, such as tourism and proposed fisheries, could bring," said Yan Ropert-Coudert, senior penguin scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

"The chicks are undernourished, so they are really weak, and they can be starving to death if the parents don't come back with food for them. The birds have to travel much further in difficult conditions to find food for the chicks," added Ropert-Coudert

The stricken colony was located near the French Antarctic research station at Dumont d'Urville. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is also set to meet in the coming days to discuss whether a new marine protected area can be set up as part of conservation measures.