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Scientists follow the poop to track penguins from space

June 1, 2009
Courtesy British Antarctic Survey
and World Science staff

Noth­ing goes to waste for breed­ing col­o­nies of em­per­or pen­guins in Ant­arc­ti­ca. Their poo stains, vis­i­ble from space, have helped sci­en­tists lo­cate the col­o­nies. The in­forma­t­ion pro­vides a ba­sis for mon­i­tor­ing their re­sponse to en­vi­ron­men­tal change, re­search­ers say.

Penguin poo stains, vis­i­ble from space, have helped sci­en­tists lo­cate the col­o­nies. The in­forma­t­ion pro­vides a ba­sis for mon­i­tor­ing their re­sponse to en­vi­ron­men­tal change, re­search­ers say. (Im­age cour­tesy US Nat'l Acad­emy of Sci­ences)


In a new study pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Glob­al Ecol­o­gy and Bi­o­ge­og­raphy, sci­en­tists from Brit­ish Ant­arc­tic Sur­vey de­scribe how they used sat­el­lite im­ages to sur­vey the sea ice around 90 per­cent of Ant­arc­ti­ca’s coast to search for em­per­or pen­guin col­o­nies. The sur­vey iden­ti­fied a to­tal of 38. Ten of those were new. Of pre­vi­ously known col­o­nies six had moved and six were not found.

Be­cause em­per­or pen­guins breed on sea ice dur­ing the Ant­arc­tic win­ter lit­tle is known about their col­o­nies. Reddish-brown patches of gua­no, or pen­guin po­o­p, on the ice, vis­i­ble in sat­el­lite im­ages, pro­vide a re­li­a­ble in­dica­t­ion of their loca­t­ion, ac­cord­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors. 

“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,” said map­ping ex­pert Pe­ter Fret­well of the Sur­vey.

Em­per­or pen­guins spend much of their lives at sea. Dur­ing the Ant­arc­tic win­ter when tem­per­a­tures drop to -50°C they re­turn to their col­o­nies to breed on the ice, but this is a time when it is hard­est for sci­en­tists to mon­i­tor them. 

“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,” pen­guin ecol­o­gist Phil Tra­than of the agen­cy said.

This re­search builds on work by French sci­en­tists who ex­ten­sively stud­ied one col­o­ny and found the popula­t­ion was at risk from cli­mate change. The six col­o­nies not found in this study were at a si­m­i­lar lat­i­tude, sug­gest­ing that em­per­or pen­guins may be at risk all around Ant­arc­ti­ca, ac­cord­ing to the Brit­ish group.


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Nothing goes to waste for breeding colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctica. Their poo stains, visible from space, have helped scientists locate the colonies. The information provides a basis for monitoring their response to environmental change, researchers say. In a new study published this week in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, scientists from British Antarctic Survey describe how they used satellite images to survey the sea-ice around 90 percent of Antarctica’s coast to search for emperor penguin colonies. The survey identified a total of 38. Ten of those were new. Of previously known colonies six had moved and six were not found. Because emperor penguins breed on sea-ice during the Antarctic winter little is known about their colonies. Reddish-brown patches of guano, or penguin poop, on the ice, visible in satellite images, provide a reliable indication of their location, according to investigators. “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,” said mapping expert Peter Fretwell of the Survey. Emperor penguins spend much of their lives at sea. During the Antarctic winter when temperatures drop to -50°C they return to their colonies to breed on the ice, but this is a time when it is hardest for scientists to monitor them. “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,” Penguin ecologist Phil Trathan of the agency said. This research builds on work by French scientists who extensively studied one colony and found the population was at risk from climate change. The six colonies not found in this study were at a similar latitude, suggesting that emperor penguins may be at risk all around Antarctica, according to the British group.