Penguins may be waddling closer to protected status under the Endangered Species Act, now that a judge has told federal regulators to determine whether the aquatic birds are in danger of extinction.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must say by Dec. 19 whether 10 species of penguin should be listed under the act, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled yesterday in federal court in Washington, D.C. The settlement could affect the emperor, southern rockhopper, northern rockhopper, Fiordland crested, erect-crested, macaroni, white-flippered, yellow-eyed, African, and Humboldt penguins.

“Right now penguins are marching towards extinction due to the impacts of global warming,” Shaye Wolf, a seabird biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. “Protecting penguins under the Endangered Species Act is an essential step toward saving them.”

The Endangered Species Act limits economic and other activities that threaten species protected under the law and the ecosystems they need to live.

The center had sued the Fish & Wildlife Service in February for allegedly dragging its feet in making a finding on the penguins. Warming ocean temperatures, melting sea ice and fishing practices all are blamed for the penguins' declining numbers.

"We'll remain good to the settlement," an agency spokesman said.

(Updated at 3:35 p.m. with comment from the Fish & Wildlife Service. Image of emperor penguins from iStockphoto, Copyright: Bernard Breton)