The researchers used the algorithm to find images from the American satellite Landsat for areas of possible activity of penguins. "The Danger Islands are hard to reach, so people didn't really try that hard", team-member Dr Tom Hart from Oxford University, UK, told BBC News.
The team published its findings online Friday in the Scientific Reports journal.
Pygoscelis adeliae is commonly known as the Adélie penguin, after the wife of French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville, the man who first documented them in 1840.
Nestling just off the Antarctic Peninsula's northern tip, these islands are both incredibly remote and surrounded by thick sea ice - conditions that have allowed the penguins to evade detection by us human beings until now. Using neural network analysis of drone images they took of the colony, the scientists were able to determine the size of the population, as well as how changing temperatures and sea ice are impacting the island ecosystem.
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"In 2006, I had the chance to visit one of the Danger Islands and was amazed by the sheer number of Adelie penguins I saw", Polito said in a news release describing the study. The Danger Islands are surrounded by treacherous waters and are almost inaccessible in even the peak of summer, since the ocean nearby remains covered with thick sea ice. It now calls the Danger Islands a "seabird hotspot".
The study has further implications for conservation, as it suggests that the small cluster of islands could serve as a valuable refuge for the penguin species in the region.
Surprisingly, the newly discovered colony is formed of 1.5 million Adelie penguins, the very same species of penguins that, only 160 kilometers west of the Danger Islands, are dying due to ice melting.
"The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second. You would then be able to line them together into an huge arrangement that demonstrates the whole landmass in 2D and 3D", says co-PI Hanumant Singh, Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University, who built up the automaton's imaging and route framework. Polito said the publication of their study comes at just the right time to assist in that effort, as an worldwide body that oversees Antarctica's wildlife resources is expected to review new refuge proposals in October. "Food availability? That's something we don't know".