Poop Visible From Space Helped Scientists Find a Remote 'Supercolony' of Penguins

Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University

Penguin poop visible from space just helped scientists discover a previously unknown, massive colony of Adélie penguins on a chain of remote Antarctic islands, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

In 2014, Stony Brook University's Heather Lynch and NASA's Mathew Schwaller identified guano stains in satellite images of the Danger Islands, a rocky archipelago off the Antarctic Peninsula. The visible guano marks signaled that a large population of penguins was living there. When the scientists launched an expedition to the islands to learn more, and counted birds by hand and with a camera-equipped drone, they discovered a "supercolony" of more than 1.5 million Adélies.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat," Lynch said in a press release. By this count, the islands are actually home to the largest population of the species on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Danger Islands were discovered by British explorer James Clark Ross in 1842, and got their name from the fact that they are often hidden under ice. Ross and his crew almost crashed their ships on them—"appearing among heavy fragments of ice, they were almost completely concealed until the ship was nearly upon them," as the USGS's Geographic Names Information System explains. They're still hard to access and dangerous to visit because of the thick ice that surrounds them. And that makes them perfect for penguins.

Aerial shot from a quadcopter of penguin populations on Heroina Island.
Thomas Sayre McChord, Hanumant Singh, Northeastern University, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Penguins depend on sea ice for survival, and in places where sea ice is disappearing, their populations are declining. The western Antarctic Peninsula has seen huge declines in Adélie penguin populations as the ice has melted—up to 80 percent in some colonies since 1981, by one estimate. But because of the geographic variation in how climate change has affected temperatures, the population decline hasn't been the same everywhere, and other colonies have even grown. This new discovery tracks with Lynch's previous research, which has found that the impact of climate change on Antarctic penguins will be highly variable depending on the location.

“Just because a huge colony was just found doesn't mean that colonies in areas where sea ice isn't great aren't declining," University of Minnesota ecologist Michelle LaRue wrote in an email to Mental Floss. “If the sea ice conditions at the Danger Islands colony all of a sudden saw similar trends in sea ice decline, I would still expect that colony to decline, too." LaRue has worked with Lynch to study penguin populations before, but wasn't involved with this latest study.

The paper also shows how useful the combination of satellite, ground observation, and drones can be in counting penguins in remote areas. The drone was able to capture images like the one above every second as it flew over the island, creating 2D and 3D views of the whole area. This made their overall population count more accurate, which will aid researchers in tracking changes in the colony as time goes on.

10 Facts You Should Know About Mosquitoes

tskstock/iStock via Getty Images
tskstock/iStock via Getty Images

Between the itching and the welts and the fears of mosquito-borne viruses, it's easy to forget that mosquitoes are a wonder of evolution, and that maybe they don't get a fair shake from us. Of more than 3000 known species, only 80 actually bite people, and at least one eats other mosquitoes for us. They grow from egg to adult in just five days, begin mating within minutes of hatching, and possess, by way of their stinging mouthparts, some of the coolest appendages in the animal kingdom.

1. Mosquitoes are excellent flyers in bad weather.

The average raindrop is 50 times heavier than the average mosquito, yet they buzz around in the rain with no problems. If a Boeing 747 got whacked with a similarly scaled-up raindrop, there would be 2375 tons of water coming down on it, and things probably wouldn’t turn out as well as they do for the mosquito. How do the insects do it?

A common urban legend said that the bugs were nimble enough to dodge the drops. A few years ago, a team of engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology watched real mosquitoes and Styrofoam dummy mosquitoes with a high-speed camera during a rainy flight to see if that’s what was really happening. They found that the bugs don’t fly fast enough to dodge the drops, but their slowness is what keeps them from getting knocked out of the sky. A mosquito’s low mass even at slow speed doesn’t provide enough of a target for a raindrop to splash on collision. Instead, the drop just deforms, and doesn’t transfer enough momentum to the mosquito to disrupt its flight.

2. Texas is the mosquito capital of America.

Of the 3000 species of mosquitoes around the world, at least 150 are found in the United States, and 85 of those call Texas home. When people say everything's bigger in Texas, you can also include the biodiversity of the state's biting, disease-carrying insects.

3. Some mosquitoes are truly dangerous to humans ...

The female mosquito, which is the one that stings and sucks blood, is an incredible transmitter of disease and, because of that, the deadliest animal in the world. Each year, the malaria parasites they transmit kill 2 million to 3 million people and infect another 200 million or more. They also spread pathogens that cause yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya and West Nile disease.

4. ... and some mosquitoes are harmless.

Not every species of mosquito sucks blood from people, and among those that do, not every one transmits disease. The blood suckers don’t even need to bite you for every meal. Males live entirely on nectar and other plant fluids, and the females’ diet is primarily plant-based, too. Most of the time, they only go after people when they’re ready to reproduce, because blood contains lipids, proteins, and other nutrients needed for the production of eggs.

5. MosquitoEs actually help the environment.

When you’re rubbing calamine lotion all over yourself, mosquitoes might not seem to serve any purpose but to annoy you, but many species play important ecological roles. The mosquitoes Aedes impiger and Aedes nigripes, which gather in thick clouds in Arctic Russia and Canada, are an important food source for migrating birds. Farther south, birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, frogs, and fish also eat different mosquito species regularly. Plants need them, too, and some, like the blunt-leaved orchid and endangered monkeyface orchid, rely on mosquitoes as their primary pollinator.

Some mosquito species are also excellent at mosquito control. Species of the genus Toxorhynchites feed on the larvae and immature stages of other mosquitoes and will sometimes even cannibalize members of their own species.

6. Mosquitoes are amazing hunters (as if we needed to tell you that).

Mosquitoes are adept at picking up on the chemicals given off by their human hosts. They can detect the carbon dioxide in our breath, the 1-octen-3-ol in our breath and sweat, and other organic substances we produce with the 70-plus types of odor and chemical receptors in their antennae. These receptors can pick up traces of chemicals from hundreds of feet away, and once the mosquito closes in, it tracks its meal chemically and also visually—and they’re fond of people wearing dark colors.

7. Mosquitoes can be picky.

If it seems like you’re always covered head to toe by bites while people who were sitting right next to you only have one or two, it’s not just paranoia; the skeeters actually are out to get you. Some people happen to give off more of the odors and compounds that mosquitoes find simply irresistible, while others emit less of those and more of the compounds that make them unattractive to mosquitoes—either by acting as repellents or by masking the compounds that mosquitoes would find attractive.

8. A female mosquito's mouth is primed for sucking blood.

A mosquito doesn’t simply sink its proboscis into your skin and start sucking. What you see sticking out of a mosquito’s face is the labium, which sheaths the mouthparts that really do all the work. The labium bends back when a mosquito bites, allowing these other parts to pass through its tip and do their thing. The sharp, pointed mandibles and maxillae, which both come in pairs, are used to pierce the skin, and the hollow hypopharynx and the labrum are used to deliver saliva and draw blood, respectively.

9. Mosquito saliva prevents blood clotting.

The saliva that gets pumped out from the hypopharynx during a bite is necessary to get around our blood’s tendency to clot. It contains a grab bag of chemicals that suppress vascular constriction, blood clotting and platelet aggregation, keeping our blood from clogging up the mosquitoes' labrum and ruining their meal.

10. Mosquitoes can explode.

Blood pressure makes a mosquito's meal easier by helping to fill its stomach faster, but urban legend says it can also lead to their doom. Story goes, you can flex a muscle close to the bite site or stretch your skin taut so the mosquito can’t pull out its proboscis and your blood pressure will fill the bug until it bursts. The consensus among entomologists seems to be that this is bunk, but there is a more complicated way of blowing the bugs up. To make a blood bomb, you’ve got to sever the mosquito’s ventral nerve cord, which transmits information about satiety. When it's cut, the cord can’t tell the mosquito’s brain that its stomach is full, so it’ll keep feeding until it reaches critical mass. At least one researcher found that mosquitoes clueless about how full they were would keep sucking even after their guts had exploded, sending showers of blood spilling out of their blown-out back end.

Get The Details On All 21 Successful Moon Landings With This Interactive Map

Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan mans a Lunar Roving Vehicle during the Apollo 17 mission.
Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan mans a Lunar Roving Vehicle during the Apollo 17 mission.
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In light of Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary this week, the world has focused on those historic first few steps on the Moon and everything that led up to them. But how much do you know about the 20 subsequent Moon landings? To fill you in, Smithsonian.com created an interactive map of the Moon with the who, what, where, when, and how of each successful lunar mission.

The map is color-coded: red for Russian Luna missions, green for China’s Chang'e 3 and Chang'e 4, and blue for the U.S.’s Apollo (marked with stars) and Surveyor missions (simple rings). You can click on each icon to expand a paragraph with a short summary of the mission and its notable accomplishments.

After Russia’s unmanned Luna 9 became the first craft to touch down on the Moon in 1966, 18 other triumphant landings followed in just a decade. The 20th didn’t happen until 37 years later, when China achieved its first landing with Chang'e 3 in 2013. The most recent occurred this past January, when China’s Chang'e 4 became the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the Moon. Chang'e 4 and its rover, Yutu 2, are still exploring the Moon as you read this, and China hopes to launch its follow-up mission, Chang'e 5, as early as this year.

Six Apollo missions landed humans on the Moon, and there haven’t been any actual astronauts on its surface since. But the 15 robotic landings have contributed to our lunar knowledge in a safer, more cost-efficient way. If you look at the map, you can see that most of the spacecrafts have landed near the Moon’s equator on the near side, where the terrain is mostly basaltic plains—the far side contains craters and even mountains. With more Chang'e missions to come from China, and NASA’s Artemis missions in the works, Smithsonian.com may soon have to create a 360° version of its map.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

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