Scientists Find Secret 'Supercolony' of 1.5 Million Penguins

©. Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University / Stony Brook University

The 9-mile long archipelago has more Adélie penguins than the entire rest of the Antarctic peninsula combined.

As has been the plight of all too many species lately, over the past 40 years the number of Adélie penguins has been in steady decline. With the fragile state of the climate and animals of all stripes being threatened, it seemed that the Adélies were no different. If only there were a chain of secret seabird islands somewhere, a penguin paradise where crowds of the creatures were living their best lives.

Which of course, as it turns out, there is. In a paper published earlier this year, a group of scientists announced that they had found a yet unknown "supercolony" of more than 1.5 million Adélie penguins in the awesomely named Danger Islands, off of the Antarctic Peninsula’s northern tip.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren’t known to be an important penguin habitat," says Heather Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University.

"We thought that we knew where all the penguin colonies were,” she adds. “But in fact, this small archipelago, that measures only 15 kilometers from one end to the other, [is home to] more Adélie penguins than the entire rest of the Antarctic peninsula combined.”

Penguin crowd

© Michael Polito / Louisiana State University

She says that the treacherous nature of the remote islands had helped to keep the seabird hotspot a secret; even in the austral summer, the surrounding ocean is filled with thick sea ice, making access challenging at best. Smart penguins!

But rocky archipelagos and a fortress of sea ice are rendered useless when NASA is upstairs taking satellite pictures of everything. And in 2014, Lynch and her colleague Mathew Schwaller from NASA saw an abundance of the signature pink guano stains in NASA satellite imagery of the islands, suggesting a mysteriously large number of penguins. And thus, an expedition was arranged to go count the birds.

The team arrived in December 2015 and found hundreds of thousands of birds nesting in the rocky soil. And then they started counting – by hand at first, and then by drone and specially designed software – to arrive at an accurate count.

To the casual observer, the question might be, “why?” Why go there and invade their unspoiled habitat just to count them? To scientists, the answer is easy. They can log data not just on penguin population dynamics, but also on the effects of changing temperature and sea ice on the region’s ecology. It provides an essential benchmark to monitor future change, as well.

"The population of Adélies on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula is different from what we see on the west side, for example. 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," says Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

And perhaps more urgently, it will be an important addition to the evidence for supporting proposed Marine Protected Areas near the Antarctic Peninsula, says Mercedes Santos from the Instituto Antártico Argentino, and one of the authors of the protected area proposal. "Given that MPA proposals are based in the best available science," she says, "this publication helps to highlight the importance of this area for protection."

You can see the whole paper in the journal in the journal Scientific Reports.

Via Vice