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Pictures of pink poop piled near the South Pole have pointed penguin researchers to a previously unknown population of the well-plumaged waddlers. Satellite photos allowed scientists to view a remote area of Antarctica called the Danger Islands, where they found a massive number of Adélie penguins—roughly 1.5 million birds!

The guano (or poop) is pink because of the penguins’ diet of small shrimp-like krill. The pink color was easy to spot on the satellite images, unlike the penguins whose black and white PLUMAGE blends in with the rocky terrain. 

The Danger Islands are a string of nine islands on the northern part of Antarctica. They are hard to get to because of thick ice, even in summer.   

But that makes them the perfect place for the Adélie penguins—one of two penguin species that live on ice. Because of the frigid temperatures, this rocky ARCHIPELAGO is a “penguin hot spot,” says Dr. Heather Lynch from Stony Brook University in New York. Lynch is one of the five primary investigators of the study recently published in Scientific Reports journal.

“The sheer size of what we were looking at took our breath away,” Lynch says about the discovery. The huge guano piles were first seen on NASA satellite imagery in 2014. An expedition was sent in 2015 to confirm that the penguins were there, then a drone was used to take closer photos that were stitched together to reveal the big picture. Scientists used these photos to count the birds and tallied 751,527 pairs, including the third and fourth largest Adélie colonies ever seen.

Using the drone was tricky in this region. The magnetic field of the South Pole made navigating the drone challenging, and the cold weather caused its batteries to freeze.

Adélie penguins grow to be about 24 to 28 inches tall and weight between 8 and 12 pounds. While Adélie penguins and other penguin species have seen decreased numbers in recent years, this big find gives some hope to researchers—that there may be other colonies out there in remote areas yet to be explored.


April 2018