TODAY |

What it takes for Kiwi scientists to count millions of Adelié penguins in Antarctica

Could you tell the difference between a penguin and a rock? It's not as easy as it might sound when tasked with counting millions of the birds.

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They’re keeping a close watch on Adelie penguin numbers in Antarctica. Source: 1 NEWS

But it’s part of important ongoing research by a team of scientists, keeping a close watch on Adélie penguins and any sign of change to their numbers in Antarctica.

A census of the species is carried out every year in the Ross Sea region and was first done more than 30 years ago.

Antarctica New Zealand's Becky Macneil says long term monitoring is really important across a number of animals.

"It really enables us to gather a baseline data of information so we can better understand changes through time," she told 1 NEWS in Antarctica.

She had the task of photographing the Adélie colonies from a helicopter, a change from her previous work on the ocean, helping to identify whales in the Kermadec Islands.

“I tell you one thing, it’s certainly a lot chillier!” she jokes.

A whale fluke photographed in the Kermadec Islands Source: Supplied

“When we photograph the whales, we're really interested in getting a unique ID for each animal. But for the penguins, we're much more interested in capturing every single one, but we don't need to know their individual unique features,” she says.

Studies show a population decline in parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, but in the Ross Sea region, numbers are on the rise. 

And while it has just a small amount of Antarctica's coastline, a third of all Adélies call it home. 

Antarctica New Zealand’s Dr Fiona Shanhun says at last count, they recorded more than 1 million breeding birds at Cape Adare, the largest Adélie penguin colony in the world.

“In a warming world, we expect to see change happen fastest at the extremities of Antarctica," she told 1 NEWS.

"So Cape Adare at the northern tip of the Ross Sea, is a place where New Zealand scientists are really interested in identifying changes."

An aerial photograph taken at Cape Adare, the world's largest Adélie penguin colony. Source: Supplied

After the aerial photographs are taken in Antarctica, they end up at Kerry Barton’s desk at Landcare Research in Nelson. 

She's been counting the penguin colonies since 1986, first by hand and now with the support of a semi-automated programme.

“We go through and look for any false positives or negatives and just correct it," she says.

"Especially on Ross Island, where you've got a lot of volcanic black rocks, a lot of them can look like penguins as well. So it needs that human eye to actually sort it out."

The Adélie penguin colony at Cape Bird. Source: Supplied

Because of diet and dependence on sea ice, the Adélie offer hints to the health of the whole ecosystem. 

Population numbers could be affected by external forces such as fishing, the climate or invasive species.