World Penguin Day: What you need to know about Antarctica’s Adélie super colony – and why it matters

Climate change and the rising temperature of our oceans has impacted thousands of species worldwide, causing populations to dwindle at an alarming rate – especially in the polar regions.

But a glimmer of hope appeared earlier this year when scientists identified a new super colony of penguins in Antarctica.

Detected via satellite images, the population of Adélie penguins is thriving on the largely inaccessible Danger Islands.

Kevin Morgan, a naturalist for G Adventures, who operates expedition cruises to the region, explains what the discovery really means.

Why is the discovery of this super colony so important?

“In recent years, Adélie penguin numbers have been declining in the northwest sector of the Antarctic Peninsula, while the number of Gentoo penguins has been on the rise.

“The main reason for this is climate change, which is causing the sea ice to clear much earlier each year. Each season, penguins in the Peninsula will travel to reach their colonies in order to mate and, while the Gentoos are adapted to cross the sea, the Adélies prefer to use sea ice, which is proving more and more challenging.

“The decline in Adélie penguins in this region of the Peninsula has led to increased concerns amongst conservationists and naturalists, which is why the recent discovery of the ‘super colony’ on Danger Islands was so significant.

“It is estimated to host 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins (over 1.5 million breeding adults), which is more than all the other Adélie penguin colonies in the ‘upper’ peninsula combined. And with two young hatchlings per pair, the Danger Islands colony could reach the three million mark, as the chicks hatch at the start of the season.”

Why has it only been discovered now?

Adelie Penguin parent with newly hatched chick! Brown Bluff, #Antarctica #gadv

A post shared by G Expedition (@g_expedition) on

“Danger Islands are located at the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The position, just in the Weddell Sea, makes it very difficult to access due to the number of tabular bergs and sea ice that drifts past with the dominant currents.

“The ice also means the island is an ideal location for a colony of this size, and it’s simply down to the inaccessibility that it hasn’t been discovered sooner.

The chance that other ‘super colonies’ are still out there to be discovered is entirely plausible, as there are a number of areas in and around the Peninsula that are not easy to explore.”

So what does this mean for global Adélie numbers?

(Thinkstock/PA)

“The population dynamics of the Adélies are complicated. They are in decline in the northwest part of the Antarctic Peninsula, but this is not always the case elsewhere.

“Rookeries such as Brown Bluff at the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and Paulet Island in the Weddell Sea are doing well. Numbers are also healthy in the South Orkneys, which are further north, but are surrounded by ice in the early part of the season, due to the Weddell Sea gyre. Further south along the Peninsula from Petermann Island, towards the Antarctic Circle, numbers are also looking healthy.

“All of these locations, spread over a wide area, have lots of sea ice in the early part of the season, and this makes them ideal locations for Adélie penguin colonies.”

Climate change – what’s the bigger picture?

Gentoo penguins (Renato Granieri/PA)

“There’s no arguing that climate change is happening, and penguin colonies are changing, as shown by the southern expansion of Gentoo penguins. Crucially, the vast areas of potentially suitable habitat in the Peninsula region, and elsewhere in Antarctica, play a huge role in the future of our penguin numbers.

“This habitat provides penguins with the option to move around and have a better chance at adapting to changes in their environment.”

What can we do to help?

(Renato Granieri/PA)

“Globally, we need to work hard to move away from fossil fuels and our throwaway society, to try and reduce the amount of climate change. With glaciers in drastic retreat and ice caps reducing, we could see the polar regions, and the rest of the world in turn, really suffering, which is why we all need to do our bit to make change happen.

“The good news, and what always encourages me, is nature’s ability to bounce back, if given the chance. Look at the great whales and peregrine falcons – numbers were at an all-time low and due to conservation efforts, they have been brought back from the brink of extinction.

“We all need to work hard at protecting our wildlife. If we get it wrong, or don’t do enough, the melting glaciers and icecaps in the poles will have a dramatic impact.”

G Adventures run expedition cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula from £3,899pp.

 

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