Spotted from space: danger penguins

Scientists accidentally stumbled upon one of the largest colonies of Adélie penguins when massive patches of their poop, or the more scientific and less giggle-inducing ‘guano’ showed up on pictures taken from space.

The penguins are situated on the Danger Islands: small rocky peninsulas on the northerly point of the Antarctic. The islands are notoriously hard to get to, hence their ominous name, which is part of the reason scientists haven’t found this super-colony of over 1.5 million birds before.

Dr Tom Hart, team member from Oxford University admits that this was ‘a classic case of finding something where no-one really looked’.

After receiving sharper images from the American Landsat spacecraft, scientists decided that the treacherous journey would be worth their while and sent a team out to count the colony properly. The most effective counting technique was to deploy drones, taking pictures every second, which were then stitched together to form the larger picture of the colony as a whole. This method also allows both 2D and 3D imaging.

The colony was so big that the team found they were not able to count them by hand and employed software to do the actual counting, with results showing the islands supporting 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins, the 3rd and 4th largest colonies in the world. These numbers have increased the region’s known abundance of Adélie penguins by a massive 70 percent.

This research is important for scientists as it was believed that Adélie penguins were in decline. On the western side of the Antarctic peninsula, colonies were found to be decreasing; this is thought to be due to the reduction of sea-ice that host the penguin’s main prey, krill. A study published in 2016 reported that up to 60percent of the current habitat for these penguins, one of two true Antarctic species, may be uninhabitable for them by the end of the century.

The warming of the sea and melting of ice also brings higher rainfall, destroying nests, drowning eggs and freezing chicks to death. One particular colony near the US research hub Palmer Station saw declines of over 80 percent.

However, the finding of this new super colony brings a silver lining, showing that there are safe havens for these penguins that continue to host enough krill to support the massive numbers present. Though satellites have formed a massive part of finding and investigating these new colonies, the next steps will involve the team getting their boots dirty on the island.

Heather Lynch, biostatistician at Stony Brook University, New York, and head of the team, has revealed their next steps will involve collecting tissue and soil samples to reveal how long the penguins have lived on the island.

She stated: “at the end of the day, we’re going to get the best data on the ground. We can’t just hang up our boots and do it all in space.”


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