One and a half million penguins – that is nearly 400,000 more than the population of Devon county! Surely it should be almost impossible to miss that many penguins, yet for years scientists were unaware of the existence of this Adélie penguin colony.
That was until 2014, when NASA satellites picked up patches of these penguins’ … excrement! The following year, an expedition to Danger Island, on the eastern edge of the Antarctica, where traces of the penguins were spotted, was arranged by a group of scientists to get more insight about this ‘supercolony’ of penguins.
What is remarkable about this colony of penguins, other than the fact that it is the largest population of Adélie penguins found, is that they were somehow unaffected by the population decline found in other populations of penguins in the peninsula. Mass starvation, associated with climate change, lead to the death of thousands of Adélie penguin chicks between 2010 and 2017 in the western side of the peninsula. Perhaps it was more abundant food availability on the eastern side of the Antarctica that helped the supercolony of penguins survived. It might also be geographical differences that helped the penguins thrive in their island. However, scientists have yet to find definite answers to why these penguins did not suffer from population decline like those on the other side of Antarctic Peninsula.
NASA satellites picked up patches of these penguins’ … excrement!
The penguins are believed to have resided undisturbed on Danger Island since 1959; that’s nearly 60 years! One of the reasons why these birds were undetected is the remoteness of the Danger Island, and treacherous water surrounding it, as the name of the island suggests. Even in the summer, thick ice would fill the nearby ocean, making the island almost inaccessible. However, one of the authors of the survey on the supercolony of penguins believed that perhaps humans are simply so used to knowing where things are that we stop looking, and overlooked such a large population of penguins.
The discovery of the penguin population certainly highlights the importance of protection for their habitat, supporting proposed Marine Protected Areas near the Antarctic Peninsula.