Penguin poop spotted from space reveals hidden colonies

Penguin poop spotted from space reveals hidden colonies

David Attenborough will be proud - satellites have discovered a new colony of Emperor penguins in the Antarctic. While the bump in numbers is welcome news to conservationists, the findings come with the caveat that these new colonies, and indeed the species itself, are susceptible to climate change.

BAS geographer Dr Peter Fretwell said: "This is an exciting discovery".

The discovery was made after large patches of sea-ice stained from the birds' poop, known as guano, were spotted in the region.

These colonies have been estimated to house around few hundreds of penguins, which is less than the average population of colonies. Satellites couldn't see them, and they are often remote and inaccessible to ground teams.

Over the last 10 years, scientists have relied on Landset data to detect such penguin colonies, but Sentinel-2 has a much higher resolution, according to Fretwell, who said that they will now deploy much more focused high-powered satellites to count the number of birds. New satellites make tracking the penguins easier as they can pick up smaller colonies. The team targeted the margins of the continent, looking for possible colonies in the gaps between existing ones. But this discovery have increased the total population of emperor penguins by 5-10 per cent.

Unfortunately, numerous new colonies have been found in areas which are most susceptible to rising sea levels. Scientists detected 11 new colonies, three of which were previously identified but never confirmed. But two of the colonies were anchored against grounded icebergs far out at sea, an entirely new breeding habitat as far as scientists know.

But their population, centred around Earth's extreme south, is set to decline up to 70 percent by the end of the century as the planet continues to warm.

"The new breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperor penguins will decline. These birds are therefore probably the canaries in the coalmine - we need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region", Philip Trathan, head of conservation biology at BAS, told the publication. This led to the belief that these colonies are comprised of emperor penguins, because only this species can breed on the sea ice, making themselves more vulnerable to climate crisis.

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