Scientists have discovered a new emperor penguin colony from space in Antarctica using satellite mapping technology.
Home to 500 birds, the colony was defined by penguin guano – poo – spots contrasting with snow-white snow and rock.
The site at Verleger Point in West Antarctica was announced on the occasion of Penguin Awareness Day.
This brings the total number of known emperor penguin breeding sites around the continent’s coastline to 66, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
The scientists analyzed photos taken from the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission.
They compared the images to high-resolution footage taken by MAXAR WorldView3, which is said to be the world’s most advanced Earth observation satellite.
“This is an exciting discovery. New satellite images of the Antarctic coastline have allowed us to find many new colonies,” said lead author of the study, Dr Peter Fretwell.
But he added: “While this is good news, like many recently discovered sites, this colony is small and in a region that has been badly affected by recent sea ice loss.”
BAS researchers have spent the last 15 years looking for penguin dung in satellite images, looking for new colonies.
Half of the known colonies were discovered using satellite images, the scientists said.
The largest of the 18 flightless bird species, emperor penguins are around 1.2 m (almost 4 feet) tall.
They require sea ice for breeding and are often found in icy climates with temperatures as low as -60C.
They are often found in remote and inaccessible areas, making them notoriously difficult to study.
This species is particularly vulnerable to sea ice loss, which is expected to decrease due to climate change.
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Recent estimates show that 80% of colonies will become semi-extinct, meaning the population will become unsustainable, BAS warned.
The research was paid for by the science funder UKRI-NERC, with a contribution from the conservation charity WWF. Wildlife from Space project.
Led by Dr Fretwell, the project also uses satellite technology to track and monitor walruses, whales, seals and albatrosses.