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Unknown Supercolony of Adélie Penguins in Antarctica

S u m m a r y :
An unknown supercolony of over a million of Adélie penguins has been discovered in the Danger Islands, Antarctica. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Above Picture: Adélie Penguins in Antarctica. Credit: Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University.

A Supercolony Waiting to be Discovered

A supercolony of Adélie penguins, consisting of over 1,500,000 of individuals, has been hiding from the prying eyes of humans in the Danger Islands, a faraway system of rocky islands in the north of Antarctica. This comes as a surprise because biologists had previously assumed that the populations of this penguin species were on the decline. However, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have proved otherwise by revealing over a million of them living and breathing prosperously in an unknown world.

Danger Islands have more penguins than the rest of the whole of Antarctica: 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins were identified by the researchers. Photo credit: Michael Polito, © Louisiana State University.

Danger in Antarctica!

The Danger Islands were not considered as an “important penguin habitat”, explains study co-author Heather Lynch. The presence of a supercolony has remained unnoticed because of the inaccessibility of the location; not only are the islands situated in a remote place but the waters surrounding them are challenging to navigate through, with the ocean there constituting thick ice even in austral summer.

How did the researchers find this flourishing penguin community, then? Back in 2014, Lynch and her colleague from NASA, Mathew Schwaller, spotted the mysterious population in NASA satellite images of that region of the Earth. Lynch had, then, teamed up with seabird ecologist from WHOI, Stephanie Jenouvrier, to dig deeper, and thereafter an expedition to the islands was mounted.

Counting Penguins

When the investigators reached Danger Islands in 2015, they were greeted by hundreds of thousands of birds living on the rocky soil. They were able to literally count their numbers, and as expected with science, the new answers have also brought forth more questions.

“The population of Adélies on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula is different from what we see on the west side, for example. We want to understand why. Is it linked to the extended sea ice condition over there? Food availability? That’s something we don’t know,” was mounted.

Adélie penguins. Photo credit: Michael Polito, © Louisiana State University.

The team also took pictures of the aerial view using a modified drone.

“The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second. You can then stitch them together into a huge collage that shows the entire landmass in 2D and 3D,” explains co-author Hanumant Singh from Northeastern University.

Singh adds that these pictures will be analysed pixel by pixel with neural software; the main aim will be to look for penguin nests.

Understanding Effects of Changing Climate

The new findings are hoped to answer questions pertaining to penguin population dynamics, and also with respect to the consequences of the evolving temperature and sea ice of that area.

“Not only do the Danger Islands hold the largest population of Adélie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, they also appear to have not suffered the population declines found along the western side of Antarctic Peninsula that are associated with recent climate change,” says co-author Michael Polito, Louisiana State University.

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