Did you hear the big news about Adélie penguins?

A previously unknown “supercolony” of 1.5 million Adélie penguins was discovered earlier this year on the Danger Islands, a cluster of islands off the tip of Antarctica.

While the Adélie penguin is classified as “Least Concern” by IUCN, the rapid warming over most of its range combined with its dependence on sea ice could cause this designation to be reconsidered, making it hard to predict future growth. The discovery of this colony is important for species population monitoring, drone technology and the future of Adélie penguins.

Keeping track of penguin populations is crucial because climate change and overfishing are impacting penguins drastically with 13 of the 18 species currently threatened or endangered. Climate change is causing water temperatures in the ocean to rise, which causes fish to migrate to colder waters. Penguins eat fish that swim in cold water currents, so the migration of those fish results in penguins having to travel farther for food. Taking fish out of the ocean at a rate that is not sustainable is a process called overfishing and is also decreasing the overall available food for penguins.

aerial footage of colony
Quadcopter aerial imagery of Adélie penguin breeding colonies on Heroina Island, Danger Islands, Antarctica | © WHOI, Northeastern University, Courtesy Thomas Sayre McChord, Hanumant Singh

The discovery of this supercolony provides hope for the future of Adélie penguins because it is important for penguin population dynamics and for preservation efforts for the area. This supercolony hosts the third and fourth largest colonies of Adélie penguins in the world and now, it can be properly protected. 

Tracking down this supercolony of penguins would have been very tough without drone technology. The drone flew 30 meters over the island in a “lawn-mowing fashion” in order to capture life on the whole island. An algorithm was developed for this species count and was used to count individual penguins. Antarctica has extremely harsh terrain and cold temperatures, making it difficult for scientists to access isolated pockets and count penguin populations. This drone technology may allow other researchers to study other animals in hard to reach locations.

penguin looking at drone
An Adélie penguin and quadcopter on Brash Island, Danger Islands, Antarctica | © Stony Brook University, Louisiana State University, Courtesy Rachael Herman.

The drone used to discover this supercolony was developed by a Northeastern University researcher, Hanumant Singh. Our penguin team has a special connection to Northeastern because every six months we take on two co-op students. The co-op program at Northeastern allows students to take six months off of classes and work full time in their field of study. Our Northeastern co-ops get to see what it’s like to work with penguins here at the aquarium and by the end of their six months, they are trained in feeding all of our penguins and provide necessary day to day help for our team to function. Many Northeastern co-ops stick around (like me) to volunteer or work once their co-ops are done, which we (and the penguins) love! 

While the New England Aquarium does not have Adélie penguins, there are three other species of penguin on display in our 150,000-gallon exhibit. They need lots of care and attention every day. If you love penguins and are 18 or older, you can even apply to volunteer or intern in the penguin exhibit!