Scientists have made a surprising discovery of a mega-colony of penguins in Antarctica, due to NASA satellites in space.
Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the group described how they used imagery from NASA’s orbiting Landsat satellites to find patches of guano — penguin poo — in the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula on an archipelago called the Danger Islands.
They then used drones to survey the region, and in the process found a huge colony of about 1.5 million Adélie penguins, among the biggest ever seen. This could tell us more about penguin inhabitants in the area, and the effects of changing temperature and sea ice.
“[T]he sheer size of what we were looking at took away our breath,” Dr Heather Lynch from Stony Brook University in New York, one of the study’s lead authors, told BBC News.
“We thought, ‘Wow! If what we’re seeing is correct, these are likely to be some of the most significant Adélie penguin colonies in the world, and it’s likely to be well worth our while sending in an expedition to count them properly.'”
The group travelled to the area in December 2015, financed by the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), having first discovered evidence for animals there in 2014 by scouring Landsat data using an algorithm. They then used a modified quadcopter drone to shoot images of the Danger Islands from above, discovering the supercolony in the process.
The Danger Islands get their name from British explorer James Ross in 1842. He named them so because, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), they appeared suddenly among heavy fragments of ice and “were almost completely concealed until the boat was almost upon them.”
Interestingly, the amount of Adélie penguins found on the east side of Antarctica is different to the west side — where this discovery was made. This may be due to greater sea ice in the region, more accessible food, or other elements.
It’s hoped this discovery provides more support to creating protected areas near the Antarctic, such as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) or Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
“Given the large number of Adélie penguins breeding at the Danger Islands, and the likelihood that the northern Weddell Sea will stay suitable for Adélie penguins longer than the rest of the Antarctic Peninsula area, we suggest the Danger Islands should be strongly considered for further protection,” the group wrote in their paper.
Drone footage was used to follow up on the satellite data. Thomas Sayre-McCord, WHOI/MIT