A remote location in Antarctica is home to a whopping 1.5 million Adélie penguins and this previously unknown supercolony of penguins was recently discovered by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and colleagues.
Danger Islands is a chain of remote, rocky islands off of the Antarctic Peninsula’s northern tip. Because of the location of the islands and the extreme weather conditions, the area hasn’t been extensively explored leaving the supercolony of penguins undetected for decades. However, that changed when scientists spotted telltale guano stains in existing NASA satellite imagery of the islands in 2014, hinting at a mysteriously large number of penguins.
An expedition was organized by scientists with the goal of counting the birds firsthand as well as through surveillance and imaging of the area using a modified commercial quadcopter drone. The drone enabled the team to capture images of the entire area in grid format that can be used to create 2D and 3D maps of the location.
Once those massive images are available, the team used neural network software to analyze them, pixel by pixel, searching for penguin nests autonomously.
Using multiple simultaneous counts on the ground, quadcopter-based aerial photography and high-resolution satellite imagery they found that the Danger Islands have 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins, more than the rest of the entire Antarctic Peninsula region combined. This discovery means these islands include the third and fourth largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world.
The number of penguins in the Danger Islands could provide insight not just on penguin population dynamics, but also on the effects of changing temperature and sea ice on the region’s ecology.
Being able to get an accurate count of the birds in this supercolony offers a valuable benchmark for future change, as well, notes one of the scientists involved with the find. There are variations in the number of these penguins on the western and eastern sides of the Antarctic Peninsula and the latest discovery could help them understand why.
“The size of these colonies makes them regionally important and makes the case for including them in the proposed Weddell Sea Marine Protected Area,” said Tom Hart, a researcher at Oxford’s Department of Zoology and co-author of the study.
The study “Multi-modal survey of Adélie penguin mega-colonies reveals the Danger Islands as a seabird hotspot” is published in journal Scientific Reports.