Satellite Search For Poop Reveals More Emperor Penguins In Antarctica Than We Thought

Much like Dorothy and her yellow brick road, scientists must follow the guano if they want to find Emperor penguin colonies. Christopher Walton

You might think spotting a colony of emperor penguins against the blank canvas that is Antarctica would be easy enough but scanning 14,200,000 square kilometers (5,500,000 square miles) of baron icescape is a harder task than you might think. Thankfully, with the emergence of space technology, we can lean on some pretty sophisticated equipment to help us get the job done. A new study using satellite mapping has revealed there are nearly 20 percent more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than was previously thought. The results, published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, come as good news and also provide conservation scientists with an important benchmark to monitor the health of this species.

The study authors used images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 to play an expert level of Where’s Waldo and track down these (usually) black-and-white animals. To their delight they found 11 new colonies bringing up the continent’s total colony count to 61.

Imperfections in the snow show where the Emperor penguins can be found. Cape Gates, Antarctica, Nov 7, 2016. (C) Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel-2 data (2016), processed by ESA

“This is an exciting discovery,” said lead author Dr Peter Fretwell, a geographer at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), in a statement. “The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find these new colonies. And whilst this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by 5-10% to just over half a million penguins, or around 265,500 – 278,500 breeding pairs”.

Although penguins are too small to show up in satellite images, giant stains on the ice from their droppings – known as guano – are easy to identify. Yule bay, Antarctica, Nov 23, 2016. (C) Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel-2 data (2016), processed by ESA

If you’ve ever seen the BBC's Dynasties series, you might remember a particularly harrowing episode that demonstrated the extreme and sometimes deadly conditions that are part and parcel of emperor penguin life. They need sea ice to breed and take themselves off to some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the continent. Living in temperatures as low as -50°C (-58 degrees F), they’ve long been a difficult species to study, which is why for the last 10 years, BAS scientists have been searching for new colonies by trying to find evidence of their guano staining the ice.

The improvement in colony count is vital information in a time when climate change projections paint a worrying picture for animals dependent on sea ice. It’s likely their available breeding grounds will shrink in future years and so researchers need accurate data to draw on when assessing how the changing temperatures are affecting their conservation status.

“Whilst it’s good news that we’ve found these new colonies, the breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperors will decline,” said Dr Phil Trathan, Head of Conservation Biology at BAS. “Birds in these sites are therefore probably the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ – we need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region.”


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