Poop Seen From Space Leads to Emperor Penguin Discovery

4 colonies are newly identified
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 24, 2024 4:13 PM CST
He Found New Emperor Penguin Colonies—but He's Dour
This combination of satellite images provided by the EU's Copernicus program via the British Antarctic Survey in January 2024 shows four new emperor penguin colony sites in Antarctica.   (Copernicus/British Antarctic Survey via AP)

Scientists have spotted previously unknown colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctica, all thanks to poop that could be seen from space. As NBC News reports, Peter Fretwell with the British Antarctic Survey used satellite imagery to spot "tell-tale patches" of penguin guano against the white snow. It's encouraging news, in that the species is a "near threatened" one that has seen its numbers drop by half over the last 50 years to 600,000 at most. The four newly identified colonies raise the total known emperor penguin colonies to 66, per the study published in Antarctic Science.

The AP reports the newly found colonies likely existed for a number of years, but scientists hadn't managed to spot them; Fretwell describes them as small, with fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs each. Per the BBC, scientists suspect all colonies of a significant size are now known. As for Fretwell's enthusiasm over his find, it's tamped down: "By the end of the century we think that almost all emperor penguin colonies will no longer be viable" due to sea-ice melt, he tells NBC News. "They're not going to survive in the long run."

The BBC gives context to his gloomy prediction, reporting emperor penguins "court, mate, lay and hatch eggs, and then bring up their young on the sea-ice connected to the coast." That ice is melting, making breeding a less stable and predictable endeavor. Still, Fretwell sees value in his discovery, in that understanding the locations of all current colonies is "really, really important if we're going to monitor how they adapt to climate change. But it doesn't change the big picture that much." (More discoveries stories.)

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