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.
Ice loss and rising temperatures are a threat to penguins in both the Arctic and Antarctica, but the latest discovery suggests some colonies and their habitats remain resilient. The survey served to demonstrate the results of using satellite and drone imagery for environmental surveys.
"We were surprised to find so many penguins on these islands, especially because some of these islands were not known to have penguins".
In December 2015 a team of 10 scientists made the treacherous journey to the Danger Islands, on the edge of the Weddell Sea's oceanic vortex of sea ice. The team wasn't sure how many penguins were there, so they set out to count them.
"Not only do the Danger Islands hold the largest population of Adélie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, they also appear to have not suffered the population declines found along the western side of Antarctic Peninsula that are associated with recent climate change", said Professor Michael Polito, an ecologist at the Louisiana State University who participated in the research.
However, thanks to the Landsat satellite, ran jointly by the NASA and the US Geological Survey, the researchers were able to make this discovery.
Counting the number of penguins on the Danger Islands provides scientists with an important reference point for future change. Details the researchers wrote in the journal Scientific Reports.More news: Mandatory airbag recall to affect millions of Australian vehicle owners
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In total they found on the Islands more than 751 thousand pairs of penguins.
"It puts the East Antarctic Peninsula in stark contrast to the Adélie and chinstrap penguin declines that we are seeing on the West Antarctic Peninsula", said Dr Tom Hart, a penguin researcher at the University of Oxford.
A massive collective of penguins forming a super colony have been discovered in a part of Antarctica that hasn't been impacted by climate change. The team counted them up with an assist from a quadcopter drone.
The animals are crammed on to a rocky archipelago called the Danger Islands.
"Now that we know this tiny island group is so important, it can be considered for further protection", she explained.
Then followed a field expedition for a census using a combination of drone footage, pictures taken on the ground, and an old fashioned walk-about headcount.
"It's not clear what the driver of those declines is yet; the candidates are climate change, fishing and direct human disturbance, but it does show the size of the problem".