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Computers Help Find Huge Group of Penguins

Danger Islands, Antarctica —(Map)

Scientists have found a huge group of penguins on islands near Antarctica. They did not expect to find the penguins there. They used computers and drones to help find them.

Adélie Penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica
Adélie Penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica
(Source: Jason Auch, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Adélie Penguins are a common penguin in Antarctica. But in recent years, there have been fewer and fewer of them. Scientists were worried because the numbers of Adélie Penguins were going down. But now they have found over 750,000 pairs of the penguins living on some faraway islands. A group of penguins living together is called a colony. But this colony is so big, the scientists call it a “supercolony”.

In 2014, two scientists, Heather Lynch and Mathew Schwaller, used computers to study satellite pictures from NASA  . The computer program studied pictures of Antarctica that were taken from space, and looked for signs of penguins. The scientists were surprised when the program found what looked like lots of penguin poop on some islands. Scientists call the poop of birds “guano”.

A large colony of penguins in Cape Adare, Antarctica
A large colony of penguins in Cape Adare, Antarctica
(Source: Brocken Inaglory, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The scientists wanted to go find out about the guano marks on the islands. The islands are called the Danger Islands. They are far away from most other places, and the sea around them can be icy and dangerous. No one had ever thought that there were lots of penguins there.

In December 2015, Lynch and other scientists made a trip to the Danger Islands. They saw hundreds of thousands of Adélie Penguins. They started counting the birds by hand. But they also tried something different. They used a drone to fly over the island and take pictures. A drone is a machine that can fly without a person inside it.

Scientists used a drone like this one to take pictures of the penguins.
Scientists used a drone like this one to take pictures of the penguins.
(Source: Jason Blackeye jeisblack, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Hanumant Singh created a system to have the drone fly back and forth across the island. The drone took lots of pictures. Later, Singh’s system put the pictures together to make one big picture. Then, the scientists used a computer to look at the big picture and help count the penguins. They found over 1.5 million penguins on the islands. That’s more Adélie Penguins than there are in all the rest of Antarctica.

This news is important. Scientists may be able to learn why these penguins are doing well, but the numbers of Adélie Penguins are going down in other areas. Also, some people are hoping to make protected areas in the seas around Antarctica. Now that they know about the supercolony of penguins, they may decide to protect the area around the Danger Islands, too.


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