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Research team helps discover massive Antarctic penguin colony

Adélie penguins gathered around on an iceberg in Antarctica. A supercolony of penguins was found by Associate Professor Heather J. Lynch and a team of Stony Brook students and researchers from other universities. JASON AUCH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS VIA CC BY 2.0

Stony Brook Ecology & Evolution Associate Professor Heather J. Lynch and a team of Stony Brook students, along with researchers from other universities, discovered over 1.5 million Adélie penguins in the Danger Islands near the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula, where the species was previously thought to be in decline.

The discovery was announced in a paper published in Nature’s Scientific Reports on March 2.

The colonies were discovered about two years ago, when satellite imagery from 2014 showing the distinct pinkish color of their guano, or feces, prompted further exploration. The full scale of the colonies was not realized until Lynch’s team went on an expedition to physically count the penguins.

The research has been propelled into the international spotlight recently, with articles published by The New York Times, Time magazine and BBC.

I think the visuals was the key to the excitement surrounding this paper (at least as far as the public is concerned),” Lynch wrote in an email. “Oftentimes we are so focused on the research that we don’t take many photographs or videos, but in this case we had this amazing drone footage and I think it was the video flying over the colony that really captured the public’s imagination here.” 

Lynch said that in the short term, the publicity has caused everything to come to come to a standstill, though in the longer term it may lead to more funding.

Because of the difficulty of access to the Danger Islands, the expedition had to be done from a privately-chartered yacht, which is far more expensive than the large cruise ships that Lynch’s lab usually uses for penguin census work.

“This kind of ‘high risk, high reward’ field work is exceptionally hard to fund, in large part because NSF will not fund smaller yacht work because of the associated liability,” Lynch said. “These yacht-based expeditions have to be privately funded and there are only so many private foundations willing to sponsor this kind of research.”

Lynch didn’t actually go to the Danger Islands for the research this time. She stayed back as mission command and kept an eye on the sea ice.

Three of her students did go, in addition to a few other students and principal investigators. One of the students, Rachael Herman, a masters student at Louisiana State University at the time, is now a Ph.D. student in Lynch’s lab in the department of ecology & evolution at Stony Brook.

“Working on this project in the Danger Islands, you know, and just leading her students and hearing about her lab just really made me want to come work with her, and it’s definitely a major reason why I came to Stony Brook to do my Ph.D.,” Herman said.

Lynch specializes in survey work, which is why so many students from her lab went on the expedition.

They used satellite imagery and drone surveying to help estimate the number of penguins. Casey Youngflesh,  a Ph.D. student in the ecology & evolution department who went on the expedition, said that groundcounting, the process of physically counting the population in person, was the most effective method.

“One of the goals of the project was to test whether all of these things were in agreement with each other,” Youngflesh said of the preliminary data. “Groundcounting is obviously the best thing that you could do.”

The research was funded by the Dalio Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has donated over $1.3 billion  since its founding in 2003. Lynch said that her team is currently working with the Stony Brook administration to expand research in Antarctica.

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