‘Mega-colonies’ of 1.5 million penguins discovered in Antarctica

The discovery shows the remote area is a vital refuge for wildlife from climate change and overfishing and should be protected by a new reserve, say scientists

Huge ” mega-colonies” of penguins have been discovered near the Antarctic peninsula, hosting more than 1.5 million birds. Researchers say it shows the area is a vital refuge from climate change and human activities and should be protected by a vast new marine wildlife reserve currently under consideration.

The huge numbers of Adelie penguins were found on the Danger Islands in the Weddell Sea, on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. It is a tough place to reach and has seldom been visited. But scientists, prompted by spacecraft images, mounted an expedition and used on-the-ground counts and aerial photography from dronings to reveal 751,527 pairs of penguins.

Aerial footage disclosed an enormous breeding colony of Adelie penguins in the Danger Islands. Photo: Thomas Sayre-McCord/ WHOI/ MIT

The researchers then analyzed satellite images going back to 1959 and believe the colony has been stable over that time. In contrast, Adelie colonies to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, where the impact of climate change and human activity are much greater, are in decline.

” This was an incredible experience, discovering and counting so many penguins ,” said Tom Hart, at the University of Oxford and part of the international research team. Its report, Survey of Adelie Penguin Mega-colonies Reveals the Danger Islands as a Seabird Hotspot, is published in the publication Scientific Reports.

The researchers employs drone footage to calculate the number of penguins. Photo: Rachael Herman/ Stony Brook University/ Louisiana State University

Michael Polito, at Louisiana State University and also part of the team, said:” I was astonished by the sheer number of Adelie penguins I saw. The water around the island boiled with penguins .”

Hart said:” The sizing of these colonies attains them regionally important and stimulates the lawsuit for expanding the proposed Weddell Sea Marine Protected Area( MPA) to include the Danger Islands. More than that, I think it highlights the need for better protection of the west Antarctic Peninsula, where we are seeing deteriorations .”

Rod Downie, at WWF, said:” This exciting discovery shows us just how much more there still is to learn about this amazing and iconic species of the ice. But it also strengthens the urgency to protect Antarctic waters from the dual menaces of overfishing and climate change .”

The proposed MPA is huge– 1.8 m sq km or five times the size of Germany. It would ban all angling in a vast area of the Weddell Sea and around the Antarctic Peninsula, safeguarding killer whales, leopard seals and blue whales, as well as penguins that rely on the krill targeted by fishing ships. The MPA already has the support of several countries, including the UK, and will go before a seminar of the Antarctic nations in October.

The discovery of the mega-colonies is a major development for polar scientists- and greet good news. In October, they reported that simply two chicks had survived from a colony of 40, 000 at Petrel Island, a few thousand kilometres west of the Antarctic peninsula.

Other penguins are also facing an uncertain future. On Monday, researchers warned that king penguins could nearly vanish from Antarctica by the end of the century unless climate change is curbed.

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