Isolated 'supercolony' of 1.5 million penguins discovered by drones on Antarctic islands

Scientists visit the Danger Islands to count the Adelie Penguins

Scientists visit the Danger Islands to count the Adelie Penguins | Stony Brook University

"As of not long ago, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an essential penguin living space", says co-PI Heather Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University. The newly discovered penguin population cannot only provide more insight on the dynamics of penguin population, but also on the impact of changing temperature and sea ice on the region.

This may have been due to their remoteness and the hard waters that surround them: even in the summer, anyone trying to reach the islands can expect to deal with thick sea ice.

A team led by researchers from the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported their discovery in the journal Scientific Reports.

"It's kind of incredible that there's been this really large number of penguins breeding on these small islands in a remote part of Antarctica that sort of slipped under the radar for so long", co-author Michael Polito, an oceanography professor at Louisiana State University, told As It Happens host Carol Off. When they got there, Polito said, they discovered even more penguins than they'd expected.

"We were. very lucky to have a window of time where the sea ice moved out and we could get a yacht in", said Lynch. They called the area "a major hotspot of Adélie penguin abundance".

So a team of researchers headed out on another expedition to the islands in 2015.

Once the research team got confirmation via Landsat that the penguins likely populate the islands, they made a decision to try to make the trip and count the birds by hand.

"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", he added.

"The water around the island boiled with penguins", said Polito.

The Adélie Penguins that were once widely distributed along the entire Antarctic coast had thought to be in decline for the past few decades.

An accurate update on the size of the population of this supercolony also provides an invaluable benchmark for future change, noted Jenouvrier. Less sea ice on the western side of the peninsula has meant more research on those penguin colonies, which has resulted in clear evidence of their declining numbers, he said.

"We want to understand why".

Satellite photos taken in 2014 showed a significant amount of penguin poop on the Danger Islands, giving researchers a pretty good hint that a bunch of the adorable birds probably live there.

Rod Downie at WWF said, "This exciting discovery shows us just how much more there still is to learn about this unbelievable and iconic species of the ice".

Latest News