Scientists discover new penguin colonies from space

A new study using satellite mapping technology has revealed there are nearly 20% more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than was previously thought, which will help scientists accurately monitor the iconic seabirds in the future.

colony life
Emperor penguins spend a majority of their lives in colonies to help raise their young and stay warm in the harsh conditions of Antarctica

Using Earth-orbiting satellites to locate and track marine animals is becoming an increasingly important study tool for researchers who are trying to understand and protect our oceans. They have been used to spy on whales, sharks, fishing vessels and phytoplankton blooms across the sea’s surface for years, but researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have now used the same technology to identify brand new colonies of emperor penguins across the icy tundra of Antarctica. Using the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission the team revealed that there are actually nearly 20% more colonies across the continent than previously realised, which will now allow them to accurately assess the population status of the species as they start to feel the effects of climate change.

Spying from space

The BAS have been studying the emperor penguins in Antarctica for decades, however until now they have found it very hard going to accurately assess their numbers. The inaccessibility of the seabirds, who are constantly moving around the expansive sea ice in temperatures frequently reaching -50oc, has meant that so far the team have mainly been guessing their numbers via the amount of guano (waste material) they leave behind them.

emperor colony
Emperor penguin colonies can be tens of thousands strong and cover large areas, making them easy to spot with a powerful enough satellite

So in a new study the team decided to partner up with the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission, to see if surveying from space would yield better results. This involved using the mission’s two polar orbiting satellites, staged at 180° to each other, to map the continent’s coastline in extremely high resolution. This allowed them to accurately pinpoint each of the regions colonies over a very short time period, giving researchers their best look yet at their numbers and distribution.

The new colonies

In total the study revealed 11 new emperor penguin colonies, three of which were previously suspected but never officially confirmed. This takes the continent’s total to 61 colonies, a nearly 20% rise from the previous estimate. This is fantastic news in terms of the number of groups spread across the region, however it is worth noting these new colonies were significantly smaller than previously known groups (hence why they were so hard to find) meaning the population increase only likely to be around 5-10% with the addition of around 500,000 new birds. These results were published in the BAS’s new paper which was released in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.

colony map 2
A map highlighting existing and newly discovered emperor penguin colonies from the new BAS study

Completing the picture

Whilst the discovery of multiple new colonies and an increase in the specie’s population is great news for conservationists, the real value in the discovery is that researchers now have a complete picture in terms of emperor penguins numbers and distribution. This means that they can now accurately predict the future of the emperor penguins in the face of climate change, which is set to decimate their sea ice habitat. Unfortunately this is likely to produce some much less reassuring news about their future.

ice melting
Emperor penguins are already losing some of their habitat to climate change and these new colonies will help scientists tell how much and how quickly

Dr Phil Trathan is the Head of Conservation Biology at BAS, who has been studying penguins for the last three decades. In a recent press statement he explained that “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”. Which he believes will make these new colonies the ‘canaries in the coalmine’, meaning they must be carefully monitored for signs of population declines in the species.


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