Scientists Spot Hidden Penguin Super-Colony

Penguin Super-colony
By Image ID: corp2417, NOAA Corps CollectionPhotographer: Giuseppe ZibordiCredit: Michael Van Woert, NOAA NESDIS, ORA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Penguins are fascinating birds, that manage to survive on the cold Antarctic continent despite all the cruel conditions that they are exposed to. However, it’s still unclear how a penguin super-colony remained hidden from our knowledge until recently. This super-colony lives on a cold Antarctic island with a scary name: “Danger Islands.”

The scientists who studied Adélie penguins wrote that the population was lowering on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula. However, a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports sheds light on a hidden penguin super-colony of Adélie penguins which were never counted before. The colony numbers 751,527 breeding pairs of penguins – over a million and a half individuals.

The penguins remained well-hidden until Michael Polito, an assistant professor in the department of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University went on a trip on a cruise ship and stopped by the Danger Islands, which definitely live up to their name. The islands are quite hard to access, because they are surrounded by sea ice. Nevertheless, when Polito visited the islands, the ice appeared to be low. When he arrived, he spotted penguin nests, and since then he has known that he discovered something big on the islands.

He later returned to count them with an international team of field scientists in 2015. He then realized that he had discovered a hidden penguin colony.

“We are still kind of amazed,” Polito, fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute as well, told Newsweek. “We all knew there would be a lot penguins there, but I think none of us knew there would be this many.”

Polito and his team visited the islands, and had the luck of visiting it at a time when the sea ice levels were low and the penguins were nesting there and weren’t traveling.

Of course, Polito knew that he couldn’t count the penguins by hand, as the counting would be inaccurate and extremely difficult. He knew that the team wouldn’t have enough time to count them. That led them to use technology instead. They used a simple drone that Polito described as “off-the-shell” as per Newsweek. He flew it across the islands on a preprogrammed course in order to count the penguins.

“They would essentially mow the lawn, flying across these islands and taking pictures, and we knew we’d have all these images that we would stitch together,” Polito explained.

After that, they used a computer program to count the black dots, which would represent the nesting pairs of penguins.

Nevertheless, other populations of Adélie penguins are suffering because the sea ice is melting due to most likely human-induced climate changes. Nevertheless, the penguins that nest on the western side of the peninsula are protected by the effects of the climate changes, thanks to the Waddell Sea, which is an icy area, which is another contributor to the difficulty in accessing the islands.

Polito is hopeful that the discovery of this hidden penguin super-colony will help policy makers have a better understanding of how the Waddell Sea is important, and that they will take it into consideration as a protected marine sanctuary.

“The timing of this research is really fortuitous because the marine protected areas were proposed before,” Polito said.