LSU scientists 'discover' 1.5 million penguins on Antarctic isles

04 March 2018, 03:38 | Santos Harmon

Previously unknown 'supercolony' of Adélie penguins discovered in Antarctica

Pengui_and_Drone

It is also the only island to date with a population estimate (285,000-305,000) derived from a ground survey of the island.

Researchers have found huge "mega-colonies" of penguins on the Danger Islands of Antarctica.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat", said Heather Lynch, an ecologist at Stony Brook University who was one of the senior authors on the study.

A 2015 expedition discovered a massive number of birds.

Once the research team got confirmation via Landsat that the penguins likely populate the islands, they chose to try to make the trip and count the birds by hand. It's also the middle of the breeding season for penguins, which helped in counting them. Though they are not especially uncommon, scientists have been concerned that their Antarctic population has been on a steady decline for the last 40 years.

However, in 2014, while analysing Nasa's existing satellite images of the islands, Lynch and Nasa's Mathew Schwaller found tell-tale poop stains, indicating the presence of a mysteriously large number of penguins in the area.

That was no easy feat; even at its warmest, these waters are full of thick sea ice that makes it hard for ships to make it through.

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The Danger Islands are on the eastern side of the northernmost point of the peninsula, and while that means the area might be subject to warmer temperatures, Polito said that the warming trend seems to be buffered by their location on the edge of the Weddell Sea.

"When we first got these pixels of guano, I thought it might be a false alarm", Lynch told The Wall Street Journal (paywall), adding, "It wasn't".

The study has further implications for conservation, as it suggests that the small cluster of islands could serve as a valuable refuge for the penguin species in the region. It would be the biggest populace of Adelie penguins on the Antarctica promontory, and recommends that this species is completing a great deal superior to anything scientists expected in spite of decreases on the western side of the Antarctic landmass because of environmental change.

"The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second".

An accurate update on the size of the population of this supercolony also provides an invaluable benchmark for future change, noted Jenouvrier.

The discovery cements the idea that climate change was behind the decline of penguin populations on the western side of the peninsula, Polito said. "We want to understand why". An impenetrable barrier of sea ice typically isolates the nesting areas from fishing fleets intent on harvesting the krill. "Food availability? That's something we don't know", she says.



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