Researchers have discovered a massive population of Adélie penguins in the Antarctic, an encouraging sign that the flightless birds are faring well in some places despite the rapid warming caused by climate change.
Scientists were tipped off by satellite images which showed guano stains, or markings from penguin droppings, on the Danger Islands, a remote area at the northern tip of the Antartic Peninsula. When they left for the trip, they were expecting to find a substantial population of penguins but were a bit surprised when they came across 751,527 pairs of the birds.
"It's a lot of smells," Casey Youngflesh, a researcher on the expedition, told A Plus with a laugh. "It's sort of otherworldly in the sense that this is an area that is so important for these penguins yet it's a place we know so little about."
When they first discovered the guano stains while using NASA's Landsat satellite imagery, the researchers, made up of scientists from Stony Brook University, Louisiana State University and Oxford University approached the Dalio Foundation to fund a trip. In order to get to the remote area, the team spent days on a boat that left from the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina and passed through some of the roughest seas in the world. They topped off the trip with a bit of good luck when they found the sea ice was passable around the peninsula.
Adélie penguins cannot survive without sea ice, so they are viewed as a sensitive species that can be an important indicator of how climate change is affecting certain areas. Youngflesh, who is a quantitative ecologist at Stony Brook University, said on just the other side of the peninsula is another area where the Adélie penguins aren't doing nearly as well as they were on the Danger Islands.
"It was a pretty substantial amount of the global population that we were just kind of missing," Youngflesh said. "This region appears to be a refuge for the penguins."
The discovery isn't just an encouraging sign for the Adélie penguins, it's also an opportunity to help researchers design better marine protected areas, making sure spots like the Danger Islands — where populations thrive — are included in preservation plans.
"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," Professor Michael Polito, an ecologist at Louisiana State University, told Business Insider.
It's still unclear what exactly is causing the populations to decline in certain parts of the peninsula. Researchers suspect it has to do with sea ice decline, which in turn hurts their food resources, but the data isn't conclusive yet. What they do know is many parts of the island where temperature increases are happening rapidly seem to coincide with a decline in penguin populations. Near the Danger Islands, though, Youngflesh said it appears temperature increase is happening less rapidly.
To visit the area, the researchers had to take a number of precautions. Perhaps most importantly, they needed to be sure their boots and gear were free of any invasive species or seeds, which can be a threat to the local environment when traveling to an area as remote as the Danger Islands. They also did their best to keep a safe distance from the penguins so as not to disturb their nests or mating.
While the discovery was a hopeful sign, Youngflesh insists that climate change is a complicated topic and moments like this need to be contextualized.
"It's still important to understand how the whole system is changing," Youngflesh said. "Yes, some areas are doing well and some areas are still doing poorly… but it's definitely encouraging to come along these undiscovered things. More penguins is better."
Cover image via Shutterstock / nwdph.