A new study from the British Antarctic Survey reports that scientists have discovered 11 new emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica using satellite mapping technology. The research has revealed the existence of nearly 20 percent more colonies than what was previously realized.
The findings provide an important benchmark for monitoring the impacts of environmental change on emperor penguins.
The birds were located through the analysis of images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission.
There are now 61 known emperor penguin colonies on the continent of Antarctica. Of the 11 new colonies described, three were previously identified but never confirmed.
Emperor penguins are located in remote regions that are often inaccessible and difficult to study. For the last decade, scientists at the British Antarctic Survey have been looking for new colonies by searching for their guano stains on the ice.
“This is an exciting discovery. The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find these new colonies,” said study lead author Dr. Peter Fretwell. “And whilst this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by 5-10% to just over half a million penguins or around 265,500 – 278,500 breeding pairs.”
Emperor penguins are vulnerable to the loss of sea ice, their preferred breeding habitat, which will continue to disappear as a result of global warming. Most of the newly discovered colonies are located at the margins of the emperors’ breeding range, and could be lost as temperatures rise.
Study co-author Dr. Phil Trathan has been studying penguins for the last three decades.
“Whilst it’s good news that we’ve found these new colonies, the breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperors will decline,” said Dr. Trathan. “Birds in these sites are therefore probably the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ – we need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region.”
The study is published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.