New emperor penguins’ colonies discovered in Antarctica

This is a National Geographic video on emperor penguins.

From British daily The Guardian:

Penguin poo viewed from space reveals new Antarctic colony locations

British Antarctic Survey finds 10 new emperor penguins colonies using satellite images that show patches of guano

Shiona Tregaskis

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Stretches of excrement-stained ice that are so large they are visible from space have helped scientists to locate 10 newly discovered emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica.

Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have used satellite images, created to survey the sea ice around Antarctica‘s coast, to identify emperor penguin colonies using the huge tell-tale reddish-brown patches the birds leave behind.

BAS mapping expert, Peter Fretwell, said it was a “fortuitous” discovery. He noticed that patches on the ice in a satellite image corresponded with a known colony. The images, which came from the Landsat Image Mosaic Of Antarctica (LIMA), compiled by Nasa, USGS, National Science Foundation (NSF) and BAS, provide a high-resolution satellite view of the Antarctic continent.

By studying the images, the scientists discovered that guano stains are reliable indicators of the birds’ presence. “We can’t see actual penguins on the satellite maps because the resolution isn’t good enough. But during the breeding season the birds stay at a colony for eight months. The ice gets pretty dirty and it’s the guano stains that we can see,” said Fretwell.

The study, published today in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, identified 10 new colonies – which are each made up of thousands of penguins – bringing the total number to 38.

Emperor penguins spend a considerable part of their lives at sea. During the Antarctic winter when temperatures can drop to -50°C they return to their colonies to breed. Fretwell said: “Traditionally we would have used helicopters to find them because colonies breed on sea ice – which means they can be anywhere on the coast of Antarctica. Our previous knowledge is patchy.”

Dr Phil Trathan, BAS penguin ecologist, said: “Now we know exactly where the penguins are, the next step will be to count each colony so we can get a much better picture of population size. Using satellite images combined with counts of penguin numbers puts us in a much better position to monitor future population changes over time.”

Emperor penguin populations are a useful climate change indicator due to the birds’ reliance on sea ice. They are the least common Antarctic penguin, with an estimated 200,000 breeding pairs.

See also here. And here.

The Emperor Penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri, is listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. Emperor Penguin breeding colonies occur on areas of stable sea-ice, which may be close to the coast or up to 18 kilometres offshore, and surround the Antarctic continent, the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby islands: here.

How Antarctica grew its ice – and lost its hanging gardens: here.

Edith Ronne, first US woman to go to Antarctica, dies: here.

7 thoughts on “New emperor penguins’ colonies discovered in Antarctica

  1. GeoEye satellite used to take penguin census

    Tuesday, Jun. 1 by Hannah Hager

    Their census takers don’t come knocking on the front door or send them notices in the mail.

    Instead, the Emperor penguins’ census takers count using satellite images.

    And it’s a Dulles-based company, GeoEye, whose satellite captures the images of the tiny penguins in Antarctica for the benefit of scientists worldwide via a satellite far above the Earth.

    The U.S. census of humans occurs every 10 years, but the penguins are counted annually by scientists conducting ecosystem studies in Antarctica.

    “The more that we can understand Antarctica, the more we can understand about ourselves,” said Jerry Kooyman, a scientist at the University of California San Diego.

    Antarctica has a significant fraction of the world’s fresh water, and the penguin population on the continent is an indicator of climate change around the world, he said.

    Kooyman is able to count the penguins thanks to satellite images derived from GeoEye’s GeoEye-1 Satellite.

    GeoEye-1 is the highest-resolution commercial Earth imaging satellite on the market, said Mark Brender, GeoEye’s vice president of communications and marketing. The 4,300-pound satellite travels at a speed of four miles per second, or 17,000 miles per hour, 423 miles above Earth. Its camera can see objects on the ground as small as 16 inches, Brender said.

    Perfect for seeing penguins.

    The actual number of penguins is highly variable, Kooyman said. But, of Antarctica’s 50 colonies, some are as small as 100 penguins and others reach tens of thousands, he said. Colonies he watches closely in Antarctica’s Ross Sea are two of the largest on the continent – in the range of 20,000 chicks and 40,000 adult penguins.

    The best time to count them is at the end of winter – late October in Antarctica – when the adult male penguins are still clustered together after they’ve incubated the eggs, Kooyman said. Adult penguins wear black and white tuxedos and are easy to spot.

    The chicks aren’t as easy to see: They’re light gray, which is hard to differentiate on the white ice. However, the October sun casts shadows from them, which makes it easier to count them, he said.

    Adults are also bigger – they range from 36 to 39 inches tall. They have a telescopic neck that extends four to six inches to see over the huddle. Their weight fluctuates from 90 pounds in the winter when they’re incubating, down to 55 to 65 pounds when they’re swimming and hunting, he said.

    The GeoEye-1 Satellite became operational in February 2009 after GeoEye won a seven-year, $500 million contract with the National Geo-Spacial Intelligence Agency in 2004, Brender said.

    In addition to counting penguins, GeoEye’s satellite images help in war efforts, to provide worldwide disaster relief and support global climate change efforts, and they’re used for monitoring weapons of mass destruction and proliferation, Brender said.

    But, in Antarctica, the satellite is doing the job that humans can’t – “remote censusing,” said Paul Morin, director of the University of Minnesota-based Antarctic Geospatial Information Center. Morin partakes in remote censusing like Kooyman.

    Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest place on Earth, and it’s an incredibly difficult environment to work in, Morin said.

    Seeing the penguin population estimates is a window into a larger food web, he said.

    Emperor penguins make their home on “fast ice,” a term short for land-fast ice, or ice connected to the shoreline. Fast ice is relatively flat, so the penguins are able to jump out of the water onto it. Fast ice doesn’t float around, but remains in the area until it breaks up in the summer. The ice on land often has cliffs and bluffs that are inaccessible to the penguins, Kooyman said.

    But because the penguins like fast ice, their colonies ring the continent. Given the harsh terrain, the scientists are unable to visit them every year.
    So, the ability to have the GeoEye satellite pictures is a powerful thing in Kooyman’s scientific research.

    “It allows us to be there when we can’t be there,” he said.

    Contact the writer at


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