In Depth

Scientists discover secret 'supercolony' of penguins in Antarctica

Scientists had previously feared that the Adélie penguins' numbers had been in decline because of climate change

Scientists have discovered a previously unknown “supercolony” of Adélie penguins in the Antarctic.

Numbering more than 1.5 million birds, they were first noticed “when great patches of their poo, or guano, showed up in pictures taken from space,” says the BBC.

The researchers, who detail the discovery in the journal Scientific Reports, say it is a total surprise.

“It's a classic case of finding something where no-one really looked! The Danger Islands are hard to reach, so people didn't really try that hard,” team-member Dr Tom Hart from Oxford University, UK, told the BBC.

“When we first got these pixels of guano, I thought it might be a false alarm,” Heather Lynch, another team-member told The Wall Street Journal, adding, “It wasn’t. We had massive penguin colonies that had not been known to exist.”

“The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away. We thought, if what we're seeing is true, these are going to be some of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world, and it's going to be well worth our while sending in an expedition to count them properly.”

The discovery has eased fears that numbers of Adelie penguins had been in decline for decades due to climate change.

“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,” said Professor Michael Polito, an ecologist at the Louisiana State University who participated in the research.

“It puts the East Antarctic Peninsula in stark contrast to the Adélie and chinstrap penguin declines that we are seeing on the West Antarctic Peninsula,” said Hart.

“It’s not clear what the driver of those declines is yet; the candidates are climate change, fishing and direct human disturbance, but it does show the size of the problem.”

This stark comparison “suggests penguins fare much better when their environments are completely undisturbed, a finding that reinforces calls from environmentalists for a protects area in the Weddell Sea, where the Danger Islands are located,” says BusinessInsider.

A breakthrough discovery of this scale “offers ecologists hope: Even in the age of Google Earth, maybe we don’t know our planet as well as we think we do,” says Quartz.

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