Biology

Undiscovered "supercolony" of penguins revealed using NASA satellite imagery

Undiscovered "supercolony" of ...
The researchers found that 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins call the Danger Islands home
The researchers found that 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins call the Danger Islands home
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The researchers found that the Danger Islands have 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins
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The researchers found that the Danger Islands have 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins
Map showing the location of the Antarctic Peninsula and the location of the Danger Islands group on it
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Map showing the location of the Antarctic Peninsula and the location of the Danger Islands group on it
The researchers found that 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins call the Danger Islands home
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The researchers found that 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins call the Danger Islands home
A novel drone system was used to accurately count the massive penguin population
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A novel drone system was used to accurately count the massive penguin population
Guano areas (yellow) identified on Brash Island (at left) and Heroína Island (at right) from 1957 to present day
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Guano areas (yellow) identified on Brash Island (at left) and Heroína Island (at right) from 1957 to present day
Surprisingly, this previously unknown population has not suffered the same decline in numbers as similar populations on the western side of the peninsula
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Surprisingly, this previously unknown population has not suffered the same decline in numbers as similar populations on the western side of the peninsula
View gallery - 6 images

A team of scientists has discovered a previously unknown massive "supercolony" of penguins in Antarctica by identifying dark guano stains in NASA satellite imagery. Following a visit to the site, the team used a specialized drone-assisted system to count the population, revealing a stunning 1.5 million Adélie Penguins.

The project began in 2014 when Heather Lynch from Stony Brook University and Mathew Schwaller from NASA identified dark stains on satellite imagery around an area at the northern Antarctic Peninsula tip called the Danger Islands. This specific region was not known to be an important penguin habitat but the satellite imagery suggested these dark spots were guano stains, pointing to a very large concentration of the flightless bird.

Map showing the location of the Antarctic Peninsula and the location of the Danger Islands group on it
Map showing the location of the Antarctic Peninsula and the location of the Danger Islands group on it

A larger team was recruited to travel to this notoriously inaccessible location in December 2015. Hundreds of thousands of penguins were immediately obvious on arrival, but a novel method of counting the animals was needed to get an accurate grasp of the population. Using a commercial quadcopter drone the count began, utilizing custom imaging and navigation technology developed by Hanumant Singh from Northeastern University.

"The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second. You can then stitch them together into a huge collage that shows the entire landmass in 2D and 3D," says Singh.

A novel drone system was used to accurately count the massive penguin population
A novel drone system was used to accurately count the massive penguin population

Once mapped, a computer analyzed the images pixel by pixel to accurately calculate the population. The system found a stunning 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins. As well as being the largest population of this species of penguin on the Antarctic Peninsula, these animals seem to have not suffered the same decline in numbers seen in similar populations on the opposite, western side of the peninsula.

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

Surprisingly, this previously unknown population has not suffered the same decline in numbers as similar populations on the western side of the peninsula
Surprisingly, this previously unknown population has not suffered the same decline in numbers as similar populations on the western side of the peninsula

A comprehensive study of aerial and satellite imagery of the area from up to 60 years ago suggests that this population of penguins has remained stable in the region for over half a century. The research adds more weight to arguments to institute a proposed Marine Protected Area near this stretch of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Previously Unknown "Supercolony" of Adelie Penguins Discovered in Antarctica

View gallery - 6 images
3 comments
CAVUMark
I bet they knew they were there.
WolfeSA
The only bird "art" visible from space...
ljaques
Didn't NatGeo do a movie on this a dozen years ago? They aren't new birds. Any day now, some modern artist will start selling pics of these quano stains as modern art. Entirely fitting, I suppose.
P.S: As soon as Algore sees that pic of penguins on a hunk of ice, there will be outcries about starving penguins dying on the ice, unable to hunt. Oy vay.