Satellite finds new emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) on sea ice at the Brunt ice shelf near BAS Halley Research Station. Credit: British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

Eleven new colonies of emperor penguins have been discovered in Antarctica after a study using satellite mapping technology revealed there are more emperor penguin colonies than previously thought.

The discovery means the known population of the birds has swelled to more than half a million, researchers said.

It is a welcome and important development for the future of the species, whose favoured breeding ground is sea ice, which is vulnerable to climate change.

The locations of the raft of new species were identified from the way the birds' poo, or guano, had stained large patches of sea-ice.

Map showing the locations of known, re-discovered and newly discovered penguin colonies in Antarctica. Credit: The European Space Agency

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) geographer Dr Peter Fretwell said: "This is an exciting discovery. 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," Dr Fretwell added.

A penguin colony near Ninnis Bank was spotted by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission on 26 August 2019. Credit: The European Space Agency

The findings published in the journal Remote Sensing In Ecology And Conservation detail how images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission were used to locate the birds, whose remote, freezing habitat makes them difficult to study.

Some 11 new colonies were confirmed, taking the global census to 61 colonies around the continent, to which the species is native, researchers said.

Dr Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the BAS, said: “Whilst it is good news that we’ve found these new colonies, the breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperors will decline.

"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.”

Emperor Penguins in Antarctica. Credit: PA

Black and white with yellow ears, emperor penguins are the largest penguin species, weighing up to 88lb (40kg) and living for around 20 years.

Pairs breed in the harshest winter conditions, with the male incubating the eggs.

Last year, scientists raised concerns over Halley Bay, Antarctica’s second biggest breeding ground for emperor penguins, amid low breeding rates there in recent years.