Satellite spots on penguin poop – previously unknown penguin colony discovered in Antarctica

The colony includes about 500 birds that lead a solitary life along the western coast of Antarctica.

Using the keen eye of the Sentinel-2 satellite, researchers discovered a new colony of emperor penguins. It is about a group of 500 birds. The discovery brings the number of colonies found along the Antarctic coast to 66, exactly half of which have been discovered thanks to satellite imagery.

As mentioned, the discovery was made from space. The team studied images from the Sentinel-2 satellite and then compared them with images from the Maxar WorldView-3 satellite. Using satellites, the researchers scoured the icy landscape, looking for penguin droppings that leave distinctive marks on the ice. The brown color of penguin poop stands out strongly against the white ice and rocks. In this way, the researchers were able to locate the birds.

Aerial photos show the newly discovered colony of emperor penguins at Verleger Point. Image: 2023 Maxar Technologies

The newly discovered colony lives a secluded life at Verleg Point, a spot along the west coast of Antarctica. If you want to take a look for yourself on Google Maps, the coordinates are 74°42′S, 136°11′W.

Not surprisingly, the penguin colony has not been spotted before. Antarctica is a rugged and inhospitable region. This means that it is not always easy to enter the area on foot. Moreover, emperor penguins are often found in very remote and inaccessible areas and live in temperatures around 60 degrees Celsius. This makes calculating the exact number of penguins living on the continent very difficult.

Exciting find
That’s why researchers regularly enlist the aid of satellites to scan the Antarctic landscape from above for signs of life, such as penguin dung. And successfully. “This is an exciting finding,” said study leader Peter Fretwell. “Thanks to satellite images of the Antarctic coast, we have already revealed many new colonies so far.”

We now know of the existence of 66 emperor penguin colonies, half of which have been discovered using satellite imagery. The red dot indicates the location of the newly discovered colony. Image: British Antarctic Survey

Although Fretwell is happy about this discovery, he is a little anxious at the same time. “While this is good news, this colony, like many recently discovered, is small,” he says. Moreover, they are in an area severely affected by the loss of sea ice.

Sea ice is important for emperor penguin reproduction. This is because they need sea ice to reproduce. Its drastic reduction is thus disastrous for the survival of the emperor penguin. So current climate models predict that if climate change continues, Antarctic sea ice will continue to shrink. Thus the detection of the new colony has a black edge. The latest projections indicate that under current warming trends, about 80 percent of penguin colonies will become extinct by the end of the century.

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