Penguin poop helps researchers find supercolony of 1.5 million penguins on the Danger Islands

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The remote Danger Islands off the coast of Antarctica are home to a previously undiscovered supercolony of more than 1.5 million Adélie Penguins, and thanks to a satellite and some drone footage, researchers now know about them. 

A new study published in the open-source journal Scientific Reports this week announced the discovery. It also details the pretty incredible way it was made. 

It all started off with NASA and the USGS’ Landsat satellite, tasked with beaming images of our planet from space back to waiting scientists on Earth.

Satellite photos taken in 2014 showed a significant amount of penguin poop on the Danger Islands, giving researchers a pretty good hint that a bunch of the adorable birds probably live there.

“Until recently, the Danger Islands weren’t known to be an important penguin habitat,” Heather Lynch, one of the authors of the new study, said in a statement.

Scientists had thought that this type of penguin species was declining.

“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 [the] Antarctic Peninsula that are associated with recent climate change,” Michael Polito, another co-author, said in the statement.

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Scientists didn’t know about the birds in large part because of how remote the Danger Islands are, making it difficult to try to count whatever birds might be there. 

Once the research team got confirmation via Landsat that the penguins likely populate the islands, they decided to try to make the trip and count the birds by hand. 

The team arrived in December 2015 and got to counting. The scientists also used a drone to photograph the area, looking for penguins. 

“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,” study author Hanumant Singh said in the statement.

After gathering those photos, the scientists were able to use an algorithm to actually look for the penguins instead of searching for them by eye, pixel by pixel. 

Now that scientists know where the Adélie Penguins are, they can also work to protect them. The existence of the supercolony could bolster support for Marine Protected Areas around Antarctica. 

So, everybody, let’s say hi to the new supercolony of Adélie Penguins. Let’s hope they stick around for a while.  

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