Satellite mapping finds a new colony of emperor penguins



On Friday, researchers discovered another new colony of critically endangered emperor penguins in Antarctica, thanks to satellite mapping technology.

The discovery, announced by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on the occasion of Penguin Awareness Day, brings the total number of known emperor penguin breeding sites around the coast of Antarctica to 66.

It is the latest in a series of emperor penguin breeding sites discovered using satellite technology.

18 types of penguins

The birds, which are endemic to Antarctica and the largest of 18 species of penguin at around 1.2 meters (about four feet) tall, face near complete annihilation due to climate change and loss of sea ice.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service last year placed emperor penguins, which need sea ice to reproduce, on its endangered species list, calling the move a “wake-up call” and “call to action.”

Also read: In Antarctica, tourists swim among penguins

Recent projections indicate that under current warming trends, 80 percent of the colonies will be nearly extinct by the end of the century.

Scientists from BAS discovered the latest site, home to about 500 birds, by identifying signs of penguin feces, known as guano, on the landscape at Verleger Point in West Antarctica.

Guano stains snow and rocky terrain brown and is easy to see, while flightless birds themselves are too small to see from satellites.

– ‘good news’ –

The researchers studied images from the European Union’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission and compared them with high-resolution footage from the Maxar Worldview-3 satellite.

Peter Fretwell, who studies wildlife from space at BAS and was the lead author of the research that revealed the discovery, called it “exciting” but warned that an existential threat to birds remains.

“While this is good news, like many of the sites discovered recently, this colony is small and in an area that has been severely affected by the recent loss of sea ice,” he said.

Emperor penguins are found in areas that are difficult to study because they are remote, inaccessible and extremely cold, with temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius (-76 Fahrenheit), according to BAS.

Its researchers have been searching for new colonies for 15 years by searching satellite images for penguin guano.

Also read: Hope for endangered penguins as new colony expands in De Hoop

The technology also helped BAS detect a “catastrophic” breeding failure among the second largest emperor colony in Antarctica between 2016 and 2019.

Almost all of the chicks born over the past three years have died as their icy Antarctic habitat shrinks due to the abnormally warm and stormy weather breaking up critical sea ice.

The emperors rose to worldwide fame with the 2005 documentary “March of the Penguins,” depicting their annual trek through the icy wastes, and the 2006 animated film “Happy Feet.”

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