Drones helped discover a supercolony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins

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Paris: A thriving "hotspot" of 1.5 million Adelie penguins, a species fast declining in parts of the world, has been discovered on remote islands off the Antarctic Peninsula, surprised scientists said on Friday.

The images prompted a group of scientists, including Oxford University's Dr Tom Hart, to arrange an expedition the following year to find out how many penguins were there.

The discovery was published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

A flourishing hidden 1.5 million penguins "supercolony" has just been observed on some islands in Antarctica, known as the Danger Islands, announced scientists, today, March 2nd. Counting them by hand and using drone surveys they found there were 751,527 pairs of penguins on the islands - more than the rest of the Antarctic Peninsula combined. This super-colony lives on a cold Antarctic island with a scary name: "Danger Islands". "We present the first complete census of Pygoscelis spp. penguins in the Danger Islands, estimated from a multi-modal survey consisting of direct ground counts and computer-automated counts of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imagery".

The Danger Islands are on the eastern side of the northernmost point of the peninsula, and while that means the area might be subject to warmer temperatures, Polito said that the warming trend seems to be buffered by their location on the edge of the Weddell Sea.

The photos were then stitched together to give a comprehensive picture.

A drone image of penguins in the Danger Islands
A drone image of penguins in the Danger Islands. MICHAEL POLITO

The geography of the islands explains how these penguins, whose distinguishing features are the white rims around their eyes, have survived without detection: even in summer, the area is so "socked in with sea ice that it is very hard to get a ship through", Lynch also told the WSJ.

In fact, scientists had believed the penguin population on the continent was in severe decline, thanks to changing weather and sea ice patterns, which had led to the loss of at least eight Adélie penguin colonies. Co-author Heather Lynch of Stony Brook University said.

Polito said he and his graduate students are conducting similar studies of the relationship between wildlife and their surroundings, including food sources and human-caused changes in their availability, in studying species along the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says the supercolony discovery supports the need to protect the area around the Antarctic Peninsula. Clearly climate change and reduction in ice and krill play a part, but a decline in sea-ice also allows in shipping - fisheries in particular - which may exacerbate the problem.

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.

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