Satellites reveal hidden colonies of Emperor penguins

PARIS (AFP) – Satellite imagery has uncovered 11 new colonies of Emperor penguins in Antarctica, according to new research on Wednesday that suggests the global population is up to 10 per cent bigger than previously thought.

Emperor penguins, which are particularly vulnerable to climate change, are difficult to study because their habitat in Antarctica is extremely remote and temperatures can drop to -50 degrees Celsius.

Since the flightless birds themselves are too small to be seen from satellites, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used images from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 observation programme to track penguin guano – their poo.

These revealed the additional 11 colonies, bringing the total colony count on the whole continent to 61, according to the study published in Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.

Lead author Peter Fretwell, a geographer at BAS, described the discovery as “exciting”.

But he cautioned that since the colonies are small they only increase the global population by between five and 10 per cent, or around 265,500 to 278,500 breeding pairs.

A nearby penguin colony had increased in size, however, indicating that many of the Halley Bay birds had migrated to safer breeding conditions.

Emperors, the world’s largest penguin species, came to global fame with a 2005 documentary, March of the Penguins, portraying their annual trek across the icy wastes, and the 2006 cartoon movie Happy Feet.

But their population, centred around Earth’s extreme south, is set to decline up to 70 per cent by the end of the century as the planet continues to warm.

A study in 2015 recommended the birds be added to an international “Red List” of endangered species.