‘Supercolony’ of Penguins Discovered by Cape Cod Research Team in Antarctica

Earlier reports based on satellite data suggested that the Danger Islands could be home to several penguin “supercolonies.” However, heavy pack ice is common around the Danger Islands, even in austral summer, making difficult to access this area to conduct a comprehensive survey. Credit: Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University

WOODS HOLE – A belief by scientists that the population of Adélie Penguins on Antarctica had been steadily decreasing over the last four decades may start to be questioned after a discovery by a group of Cape Cod researchers.

A team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution recently published a paper in the journal “Scientific Reports” detailing its discovery of a “supercolony” of around 1.5 million penguins in the remote Danger Islands in 2015.

The researchers traveled to the area after guano stains were found in NASA satellite imagery, hinting at a large number of penguins.

“Until recently, the Danger Islands weren’t known to be an important penguin habitat,” says co-PI Heather Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University.

These supercolonies have gone undetected for decades partly because of the remoteness of the islands themselves, and partly due to the treacherous waters that surround them.

When the group arrived in December 2015, they found hundreds of thousands of birds nesting in the rocky soil, and immediately started to tally up their numbers by hand. The team also used a modified commercial quadcopter drone to take images of the entire island from above.

“The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second. You can then stitch them together into a huge collage that shows the entire landmass in 2D and 3D,” says co-PI Hanumant Singh, Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University, who developed the drone’s imaging and navigation system. Once those massive images are available, he says, his team can use neural network software to analyze them, pixel by pixel, searching for penguin nests autonomously.

The accuracy that the drone enabled was key, says Michael Polito, coauthor from Louisiana State University and a guest investigator at WHOI. The number of penguins in the Danger Islands could provide insight not just on penguin population dynamics, but also on the effects of changing temperature and sea ice on the region’s ecology.

“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,” says Polito.

Being able to get an accurate count of the birds in this supercolony offers a valuable benchmark for future change, as well, notes Jenouvrier. “The population of Adélies on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula is different from what we see on the west side, for example. We want to understand why. Is it linked to the extended sea ice condition over there? Food availability? That’s something we don’t know,” she says.

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