Photograph courtesy International Polar Foundation
Published January 18, 2013
One of the largest emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica was discovered last month by a team from the International Polar Foundation's Princess Elisabeth station.
The penguin colony had previously been identified through satellite imagery by researchers from the British Antarctic Survey. The penguins themselves didn't show up very clearly, but their excrement stains on the ice did.
Expedition leader Alain Hubert, who has spent seven seasons in Antarctica, long suspected a colony existed somewhere along the vast coast near Princess Elisabeth station. "When you go on the coast," explained the Belgian explorer, "after ten minutes, penguins come out of the water to look at who you are and what you are doing."
The satellite images gave Hubert and his team a rough idea of where to start looking. When ice research brought them within 37 miles (60 kilometers) of the probable location, they hopped on their snowmobiles for a side trip. The team traversed steep crevasses from the continent's cliffs down to the ice shelf, which has been shifting 650 feet (200 meters) toward the sea each year. "We were lucky to find it," said Hubert.
They finally came upon the colony at 11 p.m. on December 3, when the sun was still shining during the Antarctic summer. Spread out on the ice were 9,000 emperor penguins, about three-quarters of them chicks. Despite his polar experience, Hubert had never seen a full colony before. "You can approach them," he said. "When you talk to them, it's like they are listening to you."
Researchers hope penguins will tell them—through population numbers and colony locations—how they are faring with climate change. Emperor penguins breed on the sea ice. If the ice breaks up early, before the chicks can fend for themselves, the chicks die and the future of the colony is imperiled.
Hubert has high hopes for his newly met neighbors because they located their nursery on top of an underwater rift, where the sea ice is less likely to melt. "They are quite clever, these animals."
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