The Emperor Strikes Back: satellite mapping reveals previously undiscovered penguins

2 mins
30 Jan 2023
Emperor penguin colony

Images taken in space have show that there are more of the species than previously thought - and poo played a surprising role

image Raimund Linke / Getty

words Lucy O'Brien

The latest discovery made by advanced satellite-mapping space imagery? More penguins! Turns out, a previously unknown colony of Emperor Penguins are residing in the chilly terrains of Antarctica.

Scientists used satellite imagery to search for indications of new life, and were happily surprised by what they found. How were these birds spotted from such a galactic distance, you may ask? Well, all the scientists had to do was look. Researchers scanned the Earth for penguin guano (penguin poo), which is easy to distinguish due to its dark colour set against stark white backgrounds of ice and snow. The result was a sighting of this new Emperor Penguin clan, who have settled in the West Antarctic region of Verleger Point.

According to the British Antarctic Survey, the discovery of the new colony brings the known number of Emperor Penguin sites on the coastline of Antarctica to 66.

The use of satellite research is an extremely useful resource for penguin and arctic wildlife researchers: species like the Emperor Penguin need extremely cold weather conditions to thrive and reproduce, meaning they often settle in remote places that are inaccessible to us warm-blooded humans. Satellite mapping has unlocked a new ability to accurately monitor and preserve wildlife presence in these unforgiving areas.

While the find is encouraging, it is also a significant incentive to aid with the [conservation of these vulnerable animals. Dr Peter Fretwell, lead author of the study, said: “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”.

According to the most recent projections by wildlife charity, WWF, around 80% of Emperor penguin colonies are projected to be quasi-extinct by 2100 under current levels of emissions. This new colony reminds us all of the importance of saving their warming habitats.

Emperor penguins remain a high priority for those driving global wildlife conservation efforts. To read more about the species and how to get involved with their conservation, visit the WWF fact page, here.

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