Supercolony of Penguins Spotted in NASA Satellite Imagery – Geek

Scientists recently stumbled upon a “supercolony” of Adélie penguins living on the Danger Islands, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The discovery—made from guano stains spotted in NASA satellite imagery—provides new insight into a species believed to be on the decline.

For 40 years, more than 1.5 million penguins (751,527 pairs) have apparently been waddling around near the South Pole—completely unnoticed.

“Until recently, the Danger Islands weren’t known to be an important penguin habitat,” Heather Lynch, associate professor of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University, said in a statement.

The so-called supercolony has been overlooked for so long, she continued, in part because of the remoteness of the islands, but also due to the treacherous waters surrounding them. Even in the summer, the ocean is filled with thick sea ice, restricting access to the area.

The Danger Islands have 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins—more than the rest of the entire Antarctic Peninsula region combined. (via Michael Polito/Louisiana State University)

Thank God for NASA satellites.

In 2014, Lynch and Mathew Schwaller of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration identified droppings in NASA imagery, hinting at a “mysteriously large” number of penguins, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which led the study.

The following year, Lynch and a team of experts arrived at the islands to find hundreds of thousands of birds nesting in rocky soil (including the third and fourth largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world). Using drone photography, neural network software, and their hands, the group counted each and every penguin.

Accuracy is key, Louisiana State University professor Michael Polito, said. The total number of Danger Islands penguins provides insight into population dynamics, as well as effects of changing temperatures on the region’s ecology.

Researchers believe the penguins deserve special consideration in the negotiation and design of Marine Protected Areas in the region (via Michael Polito/Louisiana State University)

“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,” Polito said.

The volume of Adélies on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula, for instance, differs from the west side, Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist a WHOI, explained.

“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.”

Read more about the research in a paper published this week by the journal Scientific Reports.

The Danger Islands are likely to remain an important breeding location for penguins under projected climate change; researchers are fighting for special consideration of the Adélies in the negotiation and design of marine protected areas in the region.

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