Poop Trail Seen From Space Leads to 1.5M Adélie Penguin Super-Colony Discovery in Antarctica

Friday, 02 March 2018 - 10:46AM
Friday, 02 March 2018 - 10:46AM
Poop Trail Seen From Space Leads to 1.5M Adélie Penguin Super-Colony Discovery in Antarctica
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Image credit: YouTube

For years, environmentalists have been worried about the Adélie penguin. This species of flightless marine bird has been enduring a shrinking population as a result of habitat destruction caused by global warming, amid rising water temperatures around the planet's poles and a subsequent melting of ice that has left the birds homeless.

Thankfully, it turns out that the Adélie penguin's plight isn't as great as previously thought. A brand-new colony of the birds has been discovered in the remote Danger Islands, which aren't actually all that dangerous to penguins, but which are remote enough to keep scientists from discovering their inhabitants for decades.

So how were these birds finally found? Scientists were able to follow a key sign of animal habitation, in the form of their droppings.

In 2015, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) undertook an investigation to explore the Danger Islands after satellite images of the area showed off a lot of guano that, based on their then-current understanding of the terrain, shouldn't be present.

As a result, the researchers were able to find 751,527 mating pairs of penguins; over 1.5 million individual birds in total. Counting them all was probably not an enviable job.

Alas, when these penguins were first discovered, they did not initially say to the researchers, "Hello from the other side". These are Adélie afterall, not Adele penguins—an important distinction.

With the discovery of all these new penguins, there comes an opportunity to learn more about their colony, and the way they differ from others of the same species who live elsewhere on the Antarctic peninsula. With a unique hunting location comes a variety of different challenges and opportunities, and future study will focus on learning everything possible about how these birds have managed to maintain such a large population while other members from their species as having such a difficult time in the modern Antarctic climate.

According to Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at WHOI who co-authored a paper detailing the discover of these penguins:

Opening quote
"The population of Adélies on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula is different from what we see on the west side. Is it linked to the extended sea ice condition over there? Food availability? That's something we don't know."
Closing quote

Considering the importance of the colony, there is now a proposal under consideration to name the Danger Islands a Marine Protected Area (MPA) that will allow the penguins to thrive without too much outside interference from humans—besides, of course, the occasional visits from anthropologists who are studying the birds' behavior and habitat.

All of this feels like a temporary victory considering the current deteriorating conditions at both of the planet's poles, with rising temperatures dramatically changing the local environment and making it difficult for penguins and other marine animals to live healthy, safe lives.

Nevertheless, the fact that such a large colony can stay hidden for so long indicates that there may yet be plenty of amazing finds waiting to be uncovered by scientists.

Who knows? Maybe there are some giant prehistoric penguins still roaming around remote parts of Antarctica, just waiting to surprise hapless scientists who wander into their path while hunting for poop.

Science News