A Penguin Supercolony Near Antarctica

Mar 6, 2018 By James H, Writer Intern
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Danger Islands are a group of islands near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula known for treacherous waters and thick sheets of ice.

But, thanks to the Landsat satellite, we now know they are also home to the biggest colony of Adélie penguins -- a species that is considered “near threatened." 

As the population of Adélie penguins has declined by nearly 70 percent over the past few decades, this recently discovered colony gives us hope that the species can still be saved.

Following the Poop

How did scientists find and count these penguins? Pictures taken by the satellite revealed a lot of penguin poop stains on the rocks on the island. While the penguins are hard to spot and cannot be distinguished from the rocks, their poop is pink in color because of the krill they eat.

To count them, drones were sent to take pictures to compile into one massive picture and scientists counted all the nests on the island. The final count came to 751,527 nests or pairs of penguins, for a grand total of over 1.5 million waddling penguins!

Penguins of Antarctica

Penguins are aquatic, flightless birds that spend half their time on land and half in the water. Since fish are their main source of food, they have a layer of insulating feathers to keep them warm in the water. When penguins swim, their white bellies camouflages them against the reflective surface of the water, while their black backs cannot be easily seen from above. 

These birds are very social and are mostly found in groups that include thousands of penguins. Penguins each have their own unique mating call, and they use that to locate their mate and chicks in such a large group.

They live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, but only two species live on the icy lands of Antarctica - the Emperor penguins and the Adélie penguins. The Emperor penguins are taller and much larger in size - weighing nearly 48-80 pounds compared to their smaller cousins, the Adélie, that weigh only 8-11 pounds.

Threats Faced

Unfortunately, many penguin species worldwide are facing threats, the biggest being climate change and global warming.

As the earth warms up, the sheets of ice have melted, and the algae that grow under the ice decreases. The algae are eaten by tiny creatures called zooplankton. When there is a drop in zooplankton, it affects the fish and squid that depend on it. As a result, penguins have less fish to eat and thus starve.

Another major threat is from oil spills. If coated with oil, penguins cannot float or swim in water. Also, if oil is swallowed, penguins will die of poison. Other threats include overfishing, illegal egg harvesting, and invasive species.

Sources: NYT, BBC, Smithsonianmag, defenders.org, Wikipedia