Satellite spots 11 new emperor penguin colonies

This story at the origin appears in The Guardian and is part of the Climate office collaboration.

Satellite images have revealed 11 previously unknown emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, increasing the number of known colonies of birds at risk by 20%.

The discoveries were made by spotting the distinctive red-brown guano spots that birds leave on the ice. The findings were made possible by higher resolution images from a new satellite, as previous scans were unable to detect smaller colonies.

Two of the settlements were a particular surprise. They were found far from shore, living on sea ice anchored to icebergs on the ground, a place never before seen.

The new colonies are believed to have a few hundred penguins each, which is smaller than average, so the findings increase the total emperor penguin population by a smaller proportion of around 5-10 percent.

Emperor penguins are the only penguins that breed on sea ice rather than on land, making them particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis. All of the new settlements are in high-risk areas, and researchers say they will be the “canaries in the coal mine” as global warming increasingly affects Antarctica.

“The [new colonies] are an exciting discovery, ”said Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who led the research. “Although this is good news, the colonies are small and therefore only number a little over half a million penguins.

Philip Trathan, also at BAS, said: “The new breeding sites are all in places where recent model projections suggest that emperor penguins will decline. So these birds are probably the canaries of the coal mine – we need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region.

Fretwell said one of the settlements was 180 kilometers (112 miles) from the Antarctic mainland: “Many penguin scientists we spoke to were in disbelief, as you would expect them to be on the coast. Emperor penguins need stable sea ice, usually attached to the land, for nine months of the year to breed successfully.

There were only 30 known colonies ten years ago, as they are usually found in remote and inaccessible places, where temperatures can drop to -50 Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit) in winter. But then Landsat satellite images began to be used. These have a resolution of 30 meters, which is enough to spot the largest colonies.

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