This year, scientists announced an incredible discovery by looking at poop stains in satellite images — 1.5 million Adélie penguins were living and thriving on a little patch in Antarctica surrounded by treacherous sea ice called the Danger Islands.
It turns out that these elusive seabirds had lived on the islands undetected for at least 2,800 years, according to new, unpublished research presented Dec. 11 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington, D.C. [In Photos: Adélie Penguins of East Antarctica]
It all started when a group of researchers spent 10 months doing what they thought was a pan-Antarctic survey of Adélie penguins by looking through every single cloud-free satellite image that they had of the southern continent. "We thought that we knew where all the [Adélie] penguin colonies were," said Heather Lynch, an ecologist at the Stony Brook University, during the news conference.
That is, until a colleague at NASA developed an algorithm that made the detections automated. That's when it "bing bing bing," started flagging all of these pixels from the Danger Islands that "we as human annotators had simply just missed," Lynch said. When Lynch and her team went back to look more closely at the images, sure enough, they saw the extent to which the Danger Islands were filled with penguin poop.
"We, I think, had missed it in part because we hadn't expected to find them there," Lynch said. They had previously surveyed one of the islands of the group, but not all of them.
The Danger Islands are not easy to get to, as they are "so-called because they're almost always covered by a thick layer of sea ice all around that precludes regular censuses in this area," Lynch said.
Even so, spurred by the poop stains, Lynch's colleagues journeyed to the islands for a full survey, where they counted — physically on the ground and with drones — just how populated by this seabird they were. "In this area that's so small that it doesn't even appear on most maps of the Antarctic," live more Adélie penguins than the rest of Antarctica combined, Lynch said. She stayed at Stony Brook University and managed satellite images to help them avoid sea ice.
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