‘Supercolony’ Of 1.5 Million Penguins Discovered In Antarctica Thanks To NASA’s Satellites

Every so often, scientists make surprising discoveries that most people did not expect. One of the most exciting recent discovery has been a penguin mega-colony in Antarctica.

The sheer size of this mega-colony inhabited by more than 1.5 million penguins makes it even more surprising that scientists had not discovered them yet.

The discovery was made thanks to NASA satellites.

More Adéline Penguins Than Previously Thought

The huge penguin colony is specifically inhabited by the species known as Adéline penguins.  This species is the most common kind of penguin in the Antarctic Peninsula.

The main reason why this discovery is so significant is that before it was made, scientists firmly believed that this penguin species was in sharp decline. But that was before this colony of over 1.5 million of them was discovered.

How Was the Discovery Made?

The discovery of this mega-colony of Adéline penguin was several years in the making. It all began when, in 2014, a NASA satellite took images of what clearly appeared to be guano stains on the ground of the Danger Islands in Antarctica.

The discovery of those stains was completely incidental because until recently the Danger Islands were not considered a penguin habitat of much importance. Also, contributing to this is how inaccessible the Danger Islands are because of unfavorable weather conditions that make the sea that surrounds them to be frozen over for most of the year, even in the middle of the summer season.

The satellite imagery seemed to suggest that there could be large numbers of penguins on the island, unlike what had been previously believed.

The first scientists to wonder at the hint suggested by the satellite images were the Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University in New York, Heather Lynch and NASA scientist Mathew Schwaller.

They both decided that more research was necessary, so they assembled a team of scientists for that purpose. The team included Tom Hart from Oxford University, Mike Polito from Louisiana State University, and the seabird ecologist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Stephanie Jenouvrier.

The expedition was launched in 2015 with the team of scientists arriving at the islands back in December of that year. The first clue they found was in the thousands of birds that they saw nesting on the islands’ rocky terrain.

After counting all the birds, they saw the team of scientists launched a drone to video and photograph every inch of the island from above.

The drone was equipped with a camera designed to take pictures every second it was flying around. The images obtained by the drone allowed the team to make a large collage showing the whole landmass of the islands in 2D and 3D. The scientists then used a neural network software to conduct a pixel by pixel analysis. The purpose of this close analysis of the image collage was to search for penguin nests.

The images were so accurate that not only the numbers of penguins on the Danger Islands could be established, but also some of their population dynamics, including how the sea ice and the temperature changes to which they are subjected affects the penguin populations.

Discovering the Largest Population of Penguins

Because of this discovery, we now know that the largest population of penguins of the Adélie species live in the Danger Islands.

I think penguins are the most human of all birds, which may be why people love them. They’re cute, they stand upright and they look like they’re wearing tuxedos. – Shia LeBeouf

This is not only good news because it proves that the populations of this species of penguins have not been declining as was previously thought.

But they also shed light on the effects of climate change. Before this mega-colony was discovered, specialists believed that recent climate change was the main cause for what they believe were declining populations of Adélie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. But now they know they were just looking for penguins in the wrong places. It now seems clear that recent climate change has not meant a decline in the penguin population of Antarctica.

What Do Scientists Need to Know?

But this new discovery does not answer all the questions scientists have about penguin populations and the possible effects of changing temperatures. In fact, the discovery of this super-colony poses a new set of questions.

According to Jenouvrier, among the things that scientists do not yet know is why there are differences in the penguin populations of the west side and the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Whether there are any links between these differences in population and food availability or the condition of the ice see is something that now needs to be looked at.

What Else Does The Discovery of This New Colony Tell Us?

This discovery will also be key to developing new research. For example, the evidence could be used for supporting the Marine Protected Areas (or MPAs) that has been proposed close to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The international panel that makes decisions concerning the placement of Marine Protected Areas, known as the Commission for the Conservation of the Antarctic Marine Living Resources, primarily uses scientific evidence. Many believed that the scientific evidence of the existence of this huge colony of penguin could be a deciding factor for the commission to place an MPA around the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Full Team

Apart from Heather Lynch, Mathew Schwaller, Tom Hart, Mike Polito, and Stephanie Jenouvrier, other scientists also collaborated in this study.

From Stony Brook University, Philip McDowall, Alex Borowicz, Casey Youngflesh, and Rachael Herman. From the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Thomas Sayre-McCord. From Antarctic Resource, Inc., Melissa Rider. And from Southampton University, Gemma Clucas. They were assisted by Northeastern University’s autonomous robotics technology. Their findings were originally published in Scientific Reports.

About The Author

Juan Ramos

Juan has been writing about science for over a decade and regularly keeps up with technological and scientific advancements. Juan is known for taking complex research and technology and presenting it in an easily digestible form for education. Juan holds a Master's degree from The Open University in the UK.

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