Surprise! 'Supercolony' of 1.5m penguins discovered in Antarctica

Surprise! 'Supercolony' of 1.5m penguins discovered in Antarctica

Surprise! 'Supercolony' of 1.5m penguins discovered in Antarctica

Satellite images tipped scientists off to the presence of the colonies; they detected large patches of penguin feces, or guano, then sent a team to the area known as Danger Islands off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

"The Danger Islands appear to have avoided recent declines documented on the Western AP and, because they are large and likely to remain an important hotspot for avian abundance under projected climate change, deserve special consideration in the negotiation and design of Marine Protected Areas in the region", Lynch and colleagues wrote in the journal Scientific Reports.

Just 100 miles away in the west Antarctic, the same species is in decline due to sea ice melt blamed on global warming, they said.

Even more astonishing for the researchers is that the penguins' colony on the Danger Islands is formed of approximately 750,000 families (breeding pairs) of Adelie penguins, which represent a lot more than all the Antarctic Peninsula Adelie families.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat", said Professor Heather Lynch, an ecologist at Stony Brook University who co-led the work.

Adelies are one of five penguin species that live in and around the Antarctic continent.

It could also help them understand what is causing other populations to decline when these penguins are thriving. They are identified by a white ring around the eye. Krill, an Adelie staple, is caught in the area.

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The drone flew in a "mowing the lawn" pattern, Singh said, creating images the researchers compiled into a detailed mosaic map of the island.

She said that among the reasons why these supercolonies have been undetected for decades are the remoteness of the islands and the treacherous waters surrounding them.

Even in the summer, the nearby ocean is filled with thick sea ice.

However, thanks to the Landsat satellite, ran jointly by the NASA and the US Geological Survey, the researchers were able to make this discovery.

The data seemed to suggest that there were hundreds of thousands of penguins living on this islands, which Lynch initially thought "was a mistake". "But with only two hours on land it was impossible to estimate the size of the population before sea ice conditions forced us to leave", Polito said. Earlier reports using satellite data suggested the colonies may exist, but heavy ice pack is common around these islands-even in summer months-making it hard to access the area to conduct a comprehensive survey.

Now it turns out, the area may need stronger protection from overfishing.

"In 2006, I had the chance to visit one of the Danger Islands and was amazed by the sheer number of Adelie penguins I saw", Polito said in a news release describing the study.

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