Sunday 19 August 2018

'Super-colony' of 1.5 million penguins discovered on remote island in Antarctic

Adélie penguins leaping off an iceberg in the Danger Islands in Antarctica. Photo: AFP/Getty
Adélie penguins leaping off an iceberg in the Danger Islands in Antarctica. Photo: AFP/Getty

Josh Gabbatiss

A previously unknown "super-colony" of Adélie penguins has been discovered in the Antarctic, easing fears their numbers had been in decline for decades.

The thriving colony inhabits the Danger Islands, where the effects of both climate change and human activity are less pronounced than in other parts of Antarctica.

Located off the Antarctic Peninsula's northern tip, these islands are both incredibly remote and surrounded by thick sea ice.

This allowed the penguins to remain hidden from the world, until a team of researchers mounted an expedition there to investigate signs of nesting birds.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat," said Professor Heather Lynch, an ecologist at Stony Brook University in New York, who co-led the work. However, this changed when scientists noted guano stains on Nasa satellite imagery of the islands - a tell-tale sign of a massive penguin colony.

To investigate, Professor Lynch led a team to the islands with the intention of counting the birds first-hand.

An Adélie penguin looking at a drone used in the research. Photos: Getty
An Adélie penguin looking at a drone used in the research. Photos: Getty

As well as assessing the birds from the ground, the scientists used drones to take pictures of the island from above and counted the hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs.

"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 land-mass in 2D and 3D," said Professor Hanumant Singh, an engineer at Boston's Northeastern University who developed the drone's imaging system. Once they had created these massive images, the scientists used neural network software to analyse them and search for penguin nests autonomously. There were 751,527 pairs of penguins living on the islands - more than the rest of the Antarctic Peninsula combined.

Professor Michael Polito, an ecologist at the Louisiana State University who participated in the research, said he was "amazed by the sheer number of Adélie penguins" he saw. "The water around the island boiled with penguins," he added.

For decades, scientists thought the total number of Adélie penguins had been in steady decline, but the new colony has been protected by its remote location.

"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," said Professor Polito.

This stark comparison suggests penguins fare much better when their environments are completely undisturbed, a finding that reinforces calls from environmentalists for a protected area in the Weddell Sea, where the Danger Islands are located. The study documenting the discovery was published in the journal 'Scientific Reports'.

Irish Independent

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