Now, a new study conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has revealed a previously unknown "supercolony" of more than 1.5 million Adélies living in the Danger Islands, a remote archipelago on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The islands are incredibly remote and surrounded by thick sea ice, which means they've been remained hidden from the world and somewhat protected from the effects of climate change and human activity. The survey served to demonstrate the results of using satellite and drone imagery for environmental surveys.
"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.
"In 2006, I had the chance to visit one of the Danger Islands and was amazed by the sheer number of Adélie penguins I saw". Once they made it to the island, they sent out fleets of drones to capture a detailed set of high-resolution images that they could stitch, mosaic-like, into a much more complete and telling image.
Their results, published this month in the journal Scientific Reports, show that there are now more than 750,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins in the Danger Islands-more than the rest of Antarctica combined.
The researchers were working based on satellite imagery captured by NASA in 2014, that itself hinting at the existence of large penguin colonies on the Antarctic Danger Islands.
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Scientists were surprised to discover that the first bird census of the Danger Islands unearthed over 750,000 Adelie breeding pairs, more than the rest of the area combined, the team reported in the journal Scientific Reports.
"Now that we know this tiny island group is so important, it can be considered for further protection", she explained.
In the research paper, the scientists recommend that the islands be classified as a "penguin hotspot of significant conservation value", and that the area be given refuge status.
"The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second".
'We were... very lucky to have a window of time where the sea ice moved out and we could get a yacht in, ' said Lynch. Even more interesting, scientists think the penguins have flourished on the Danger Islands for decades, while other colonies of the birds have declined on other parts of the continent, especially on its western half. Clearly climate change and reduction in ice and krill play a part, but a decline in sea-ice also allows in shipping - fisheries in particular - which may exacerbate the problem. "But it also reinforces the urgency to protect Antarctic waters from the dual threats of overfishing and climate change".