June 3, 2009—Researchers have discovered ten new emperor penguin colonies by spotting penguin excrement stains on Antarctic ice from satellite images.
© 2009 National Geographic (AP); Video courtesy British Antarctic Survey
Researchers have discovered 10 previously unknown colonies of Emperor penguins in Antarctica using satellite images and seeing poop stains on the ice.
Mapping scientist Peter Fretwell says the ice around the penguins gets very dirty because they stay in the same space in very large colonies for months.
Their excrement stains make them stand out from space.
Fretwell and colleagues at the British Antarctic Survey found this out by accident when they were looking at satellite images of their bases and saw the stains of poop, also known as guano.
SOUNDBITE (English) Peter Fretwell, Mapping Expert, British Antarctic Survey "What we find is that we can see the guano (excrement) from space. They stay in the same space in very large colonies for eight months of the year and the ice around them gets very dirty, and it's that that we can see on the satellite images."
A reddish-brown streak on the colorless ice was right where they knew a colony was.
The stain was penguin excrement - particularly smelly stuff - and it gave researchers an idea to search for brown stains to find penguins.
The scientists found the same telltale trail, usually dark enough to spot from space, all over the continent.
Using satellite data, the scientists found 10 new colonies of penguins, six colonies that had moved from previously mapped positions to new spots and another six that seemed to have disappeared.
Overall, 38 colonies were spotted from above, according to Fretwell's paper, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.
Climate change models predict there will be a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperatures within the next 40 years. Ice melt caused by that rise could be disastrous for the birds as it reduces the area used for breeding grounds.
A British Antarctic Survey ecologist says that could be deadly for penguin chics that cant survive in the cold waters.
SOUNDBITE (English) Phil Trathan, Ecologist, British Antarctic Survey "If you are a little chick, you haven't got a waterproof coat, you're swimming in waters which may be minus two, minus one and a half windchill factor, they're not going to survive for very long."
This new way of monitoring penguin colonies is especially relevant because generally the only time to see emperors is during breeding in winter. And that time of year, the weather makes it nearly impossible to get to the colonies.