A supercolony of 1.5 million penguins has just been discovered in Antarctica

Photo Credit: AFP Photos and IUCN

There aren’t many spots left on Earth where one can go totally undetected, but that’s what a supercolony of penguins has been doing on a series of isolated islands in Antarctica.

Experts have discovered 751,527 pairs of Adelie penguins i.e. more than 1.5 million penguins living undetected on a remote group of nine rocky islands called Danger Islands in Antarctica. That’s approximately the population of the city of Philadelphia!

Photo Credit: MAPPPD

The story of how experts discovered these birds is just as puzzling as the discovery itself.

Experts noticed large patches of poop marks or guano stains in pictures taken by satellites from space. This prompted them to believe a large colony of penguins could have gone undetected.

A team of experts started an expedition to the Danger Islands in December of 2015. They traveled through treacherous waters and thick sea ice to get there.

1.(c) WHOI, Northeastern University, Courtesy Thomas Sayre McChord, Hanumant Singh. 2. Image via Tom Hart, Oxford University/Penguinwatch. 3. Quadcopter aerial image of penguin colony. Image via Thomas Sayre-McCord, WHOI/MIT.

Once they got on land they were stunned. So how did they count the 1.5 million penguins?

They used technology to assist them. They used drones with an imaging and navigation system. The drones flew 30 meters over the surface and took images.  They were programmed to fly in a “mowing the lawn” pattern, taking images that the researchers later stitched into a detailed mosaic map of the island.

A computer (machine-learning) program was loaded on the drones to count the exact number of penguins.

What do we know about Adelie penguins?

They are the smallest species of penguin in the Antarctic, weighing just 3 to 6 kgs. They live all over the continent, but in recent years, their populations have been dwindling due to climate change.

The supercolony is larger than the entire population of Adelie penguins in Antarctica. Before the discovery, experts believed that the Adelie penguin population was in danger. Between 2010 and 2017, 18,000 Adelie chicks on the other side of Antarctica died due to climate change.

It is intriguing to see how this new supercolony has not suffered from climate change. Experts hope to protect this area to keep the penguins safe.


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