A group of Adélie penguins drift by on an iceberg in the still waters of Commonwealth Bay, east Antarctica. Image Credit: Mike Rossie / Australian Geographic

There are millions more Adelie penguins in Antarctica than we thought

  • BY AG Staff |
  • March 16, 2017

Scientists have estimated there are almost 6 million Adelie penguins in East Antarctica – 3.6 million more than previously thought.

NEW RESEARCH HAS provided the best estimate yet of how many Adélie penguins live in East Antarctica – with findings more than doubling previous estimates.

A team of Australian, French and Japanese scientists used aerial and ground surveys, tagging and sea-sighting data and automated camera images over several breeding seasons to come up with theupdated population number.

They focussed on a 5000km stretch of coastline, estimating 5.9 million penguins – 3.6 million more than previously thought. This extrapolates out to a likely global estimate of 14-16 million of the seabirds.

adelie penguins

Adelie penguins exiting the water at Cape Denison, Antarctica. (Image: Mike Rossie/Australian Geographic)

The discrepancy with previous estimates was put down to how populations were counted, previously only taking into account breeding pairs.

“Non-breeding birds are harder to count because they are out foraging at sea, rather than nesting in colonies on land,” explained Dr Louise Emmerson, a seabird evologist with the Australian Antarctic Division.

“However, our study in East Antarctica has shown that non-breeding Adélie penguins may be as, or more, abundant than the breeders," she added.

“These birds are an important reservoir of future breeders and estimating their numbers ensures we better understand the entire population’s foraging needs.” 

The findings have conservation implications, as more of the penguins are potentially interacting with human activities both in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean than previously thought.

adelie penguins

There are several rookeries in the vicinity of Mawson's Hut. (Image: Mike Rossie/Australian Geographic)

“There are currently nine permanently occupied research stations in the ice-free areas of East Antarctica and we found over one million birds, or 29 per cent of the population, breed within 10km of a station, and 44 per cent within 20km of a station,” said Dr Colin Southwell, a seabird ecologist and lead author of the study.

Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) are one of five penguin species on the Antarctic continent. They weigh 3-6kg and stand 70cm tall, and are distinguished by the white ring surrounding their eyes. They are excellent swimmers and have been recorded making up to 300km round-trips to forage for their chicks.