03 March, 2018
With the help of satellite images, scientists were able to locate 1.5 million Adélie penguins congregating on a remote, jagged outcropping of islands known as the Danger Islands.
Adélie penguins only exist in Antarctica, and their populations have seen a marked decline along most of the western side of the peninsula, where rising temperatures tied to man-made climate change have melted sea ice.
Scientists from Oxford University were part of an global team searching for images taken by the Landsat satellites to locate possible large numbers of penguin by identifying the mess they leave behind.
"Basically these islands were covered in penguins", Michael Polito, an assistant professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University and coauthor of the paper, told BuzzFeed News.
Giant "mega-colonies" of penguins have been discovered among the remote islands of Antarctica, easing fears their numbers had been in decline for decades due to climate change.
Pygoscelis adeliae is commonly known as the Adélie penguin, after the wife of French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville, the man who first documented them in 1840.
"Is certainly surprising and it has real consequences for how we manage this region", explained Heather Lynch, the study's author and a researcher at the Stony Brook University.
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The team conducted the first ever comprehensive census of the flightless birds using aerial drones, satellite photos, ship-borne photo surveillance and on-the-ground nest counting during a survey trip aboard the M/V Hans Hansson from December 9-18, 2015. "The water around the island boiled with penguins".
"The area is covered by heavy sea ice most of the year, and even in the height of summer it is hard to get into this region to do surveys".
"The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second".
Scientists suspect that decline has something to do with reductions in sea-ice, which is an important habitat for krill, the small crustaceans that form a key part of the penguin diet.
Researchers believe the Danger Islands will be an important breeding location for penguins under projected climate change, and that they deserve special consideration in the negotiation and design of Marine Protected Areas in the region.
While we battle through some Arctic conditions of our own here in the United Kingdom, a previously undiscovered "supercolony" of Adélie penguins has been found on the ominously named Danger Islands in Antarctica.
"We want to understand why". The researchers also used a software to do the counting. "I am sure that there are many other natural discoveries to be made using these "eyes in the sky".