New emperor penguin colony in Antarctica discovered from space as scientists spot ‘poo stains’

Emperor penguins chick at Antarctica Credit: PA

An new emperor penguin colony was discovered from space by scientists who spotted their poo stains on the snow.

The animal experts used satellite mapping technology to find the new group of 1.2m tall birds in Antarctica.

Their habitat was identified by penguin guano – or poo – stains. The brown contrasts against the white snow and rock making it easy to spot.

Verleger Point emperor colony Credit: MAXAR Technologies 2023/PA

For the last 15 years, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) researchers have had to look for new colonies by searching satellite images for penguin poo.

This is because Emperor penguins live in remote places where temperatures dip to minus 60C, making them very hard to study, according to scientists.

Half of the known colonies have been discovered by satellite imagery, the scientists said.

The team studied images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission which orbits the earth.

Emperor penguin adults and chick Credit: Fritz Pölking/WWF/PA

They were then compared the pictures with high resolution images from the MAXAR WorldView3 satellite to confirm the penguins' whereabouts.

The rookery live at Verleger Point, West Antarctica, and has around 500 birds.

The newly-discovered colony, announced to mark Penguin Awareness Day, brings the total number of known emperor penguin breeding sites on the Antarctica coastline to 66, the BAS said.

Dr Peter Fretwell, lead author of the research that made the find, said that while it was “exciting”, the colony is small and in a region badly affected by recent sea ice loss.

Dr Fretwell, who studies wildlife from space at BAS, said: “This is an exciting discovery. The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find many new colonies.

“And whilst this is good news, like many of the recently discovered sites, this colony is small and in a region badly affected by recent sea ice loss”.

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Emperor penguins are vulnerable to the loss of sea ice, which is set to decline as the climate changes.

Recent projections suggest that under current warming trends, 80% of colonies will be quasi-extinct by the end of the century, BAS warned.

The research was funded by science funding body UKRI-NERC as part of the “Wildlife from Space” project with a contribution from conservation charity WWF.

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