March 24, 2018

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A supercolony of 1.5 million penguins went unnoticed until now

05 March 2018

A team of global scientists, including two from Louisiana State University, have discovered that 1.5 million Adelie penguins have been hidden in plain sight on the nine ice-covered and rocky outcrops that make up the Danger Islands on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The team now want to get a better understanding of exactly what's causing the difference between the two populations, as well as set up policies to keep the Danger Islands protected.

Danger Islands expedition team members on Heroina Island, Danger Islands, Antarctica.

The discovery comes after thousands of Adelie penguin chicks died between 2010 and 2017 due to mass starvation, in what French scientists described as a "catastrophic breeding failure" caused by unusually thick sea ice which forced their parents to forage further for food. Results from that survey, which found 751,527 pairs of nesting Adelie penguins on the islands, were published Friday as an open-access article in the scientific journal Nature Scientific Reports. Their goal was to count the numbers of the bird by hand. Heather Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution Stony Brook University and colleague Mathew Schwaller had been examining satellite imagery of the Danger Islands, a chain of remote, rocky islands off of the Antarctic Peninsula's northern tip and saw what was clearly guano stains.

Scientists had thought that this type of penguin species was declining.

What's insane is that before this, no one really thought the remote rocky chain of islands off the Antarctic Peninsula's northwestern tip was home to penguins - let alone 1.5 million of them. "We had massive penguin colonies that had not been known to exist".

The team arrived in December 2015 and got to counting.

Researchers involved with the project said the drone technology has been key because it will provide insight on penguin dynamics and the effects of climate change.

The photos were then stitched together to give a comprehensive picture.

Now that scientists know where the Adélie Penguins are, they can also work to protect them.

Now it turns out, the area may need stronger protection from overfishing. Polito said the publication of their study comes at just the right time to assist in that effort, as an worldwide body that oversees Antarctica's wildlife resources is expected to review new refuge proposals in October.

Rod Downie at WWF said, "This exciting discovery shows us just how much more there still is to learn about this awesome and iconic species of the ice". Half of his research is based in the Gulf and half at other locations, including his 16 years of work in Antarctica.

The researchers said that the findings highlight the importance of protecting the area.

A supercolony of 1.5 million penguins went unnoticed until now