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More than 1 million penguins discovered on Danger Islands off Antarctica

Thanks to improved satellite imaging, a huge new Adelie penguin colony was discovered in a remote area of Antarctica.

It's 5 times the size of Germany and full of ice-loving Adelie penguins

Adélie penguins jumping of iceberg, Danger Islands, Antarctica. (Rachael Herman, Stony Brook University/ Louisiana State University)

Antarctica is pretty much the most isolated place on the planet, which is why it's also one of the most fascinating.

Homestretch naturalist Brian Keating just returned from a visit and spoke to Terri Campbell about the exciting new discovery of a 1.5-million strong penguin colony on islands so remote, no one realized the animals were there.

Population in decline?

Prior to the discovery, it was thought that the population of Adelie penguins on Antarctica was in decline. 

"There's been about a half degree Celsius temperature rise every decade since 1956," said Keating. "And this has changed the landscape significantly — and changed the population of penguins.

"Ice-loving penguins, like the Adelie penguins, have moved  south, and populations that existed in the thousands as recently as a decade ago, are now gone —  replaced by other penguins more tolerant to warmer waters and fishing."

A photo of a whale in Antarctica, trying to get a closer look at a zodiac full of scientific researchers. (Brian Keating)

Then came the photos, shot from satellites.

"They spotted the poo," said Keating, who traveled with a group of scientists studying penguins and whales in the area.

"Put 1.5 million penguins in a little area, it's going to colour the landscape — and that's what it did."

Adélie penguins on sea ice next to Comb Island, Danger Islands, Antarctica. (Credit: Michael Polito, Louisiana State University)

Drone photos of whales

Researchers used drones to shoot photos of the whales in order to do comparative studies to measure their health.

"If you photograph a whale from above and compare it with its young and you can do a type of analysis, that measures body weight, body fat and fitness," he said.

An overhead photo of two whales taken by a drone in Antarctica. (Dr. Fredrik Christiansen and Dr. Kate Sprogis)

To study the penguins, one researcher actually used a hand counter.

"Because it's difficult to reach and because they found it on satellite, they decided to send in a ground team to basically confirm what they thought they were seeing," Keating said.

"They counted 751,527 pairs — and they've been around for a long time. They examined satellite photos dating back to 1959 and they believe the colony has been stable over that time, which is in contrast to the other side of the peninsula where I was, Adelie populations have been disappearing and moving south because of the change in ice area.

A whale in Antarctica, visited recently by CBC Calgary naturalist in residence Brian Keating. (Brian Keating)

Impact of discovery

"When you think of the importance of science in these types of discoveries, it can help make important conservation decisions.

An expedition of four scientists recently visited Antarctica, to study a new penguin colony. They also shot drone photos of 41 different whales. (Brian Keating)

With files from The Homestretch

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca