LSU Professor co-authors study on Antarctic Penguin 'Super-Colonies'

LSU Professor co-authors study on Antarctic Penguin 'Super-Colonies'

Kenneth Drake
March 3, 2018

A previously unknown "mega-colony" of Adelie penguins have been found on the islands, which sit on Antarctica's northern tip.

Just 160 kilometres (100 miles) away on the west of the peninsula - a thin limb jutting out of West Antarctica - Adelie numbers have dropped about 70 percent in recent decades due to sea ice melt blamed on global warming.

"I thought, holy cow, there are not only colonies, but huge colonies of some sort of penguin". The lack of humans and effects from climate change may contribute to the super colony's ability to thrive on the Danger Islands.

The team now want to get a better understanding of exactly what's causing the difference between the two populations, as well as set up policies to keep the Danger Islands protected.

Evidence of the penguins' existence first emerged in data from Landsat Earth-monitoring satellites, which are run by NASA and the US Geological Survey.

After heading to the remote island in December 2015 to investigate, the professors, along with a seabird ecologist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in MA and other experts, said they found hundreds of thousands of birds nesting in the rocky soil.

They counted the penguins by hand and with a drone that flew overhead snapping photos.

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Then followed a field expedition for a headcount.

"Despite our modern technologically advanced world there are still remote corners that we know very little about - usually because they are extremely hard to get to", he said.

"But it also reinforces the urgency to protect the waters off the coast of Antarctica to safeguard Adélie penguins from the dual threats of overfishing and climate change". That's because of breeding site "philopatry" or fidelity - individual Adelie penguins return to the location where they were born when they are mature, and then return to the same nest site in that area from then on.

"The timing of this research is really fortuitous because the marine protected areas were proposed before", Polito said. It's a significant number, as this colony doesn't seem to have been as affected by population decline as other colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The penguins remained well-hidden until Michael Polito, an assistant professor in the department of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University went on a trip on a cruise ship and stopped by the Danger Islands, which definitely live up to their name.

"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". That's more than the rest of the Antarctic Peninsula combined.

"Now that we know this tiny island group is so important, it can be considered for further protection", she explained.