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New colonies of emperor penguins were found in Antarctica when bird droppings were seen from satellite imagery.
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New colonies of emperor penguins were found in Antarctica when bird droppings were seen from satellite imagery.

Four recently found emperor penguin colonies were identified in Antarctica after their droppings were observed from a satellite, providing a comprehensive understanding of the species’ numbers as their habitat is at risk due to melting ice.

Satellite image of guano at the recently discovered emperor penguin colony at Vanhoeffen.

Last year, a study that underwent peer review discovered a significant decrease in the quantity of floating sea ice in the Bellingshausen Sea. This decline, observed in late 2022, may have resulted in a devastating breeding failure that led to the death of numerous emperor penguin chicks in four breeding colonies.

A recent research discovered four previously undocumented colonies and the potential revival of one that was presumed to be extinct. If accurate, this would indicate a shift of 30km towards the east, from Halley Bay to the vicinity of an ice formation called the MacDonald Ice Rumples.

Geospatial scientist Dr. Peter Fretwell, from the British Antarctic Survey, utilized satellite imagery to identify and track remote colonies of emperor penguins. He was able to locate these colonies by following the brown markings of penguin guano (feces) on the white ice and snow. His findings, which were published in Antarctic Science, revealed a total of 66 known emperor penguin colonies.

“He stated that these recently discovered sites have effectively completed the previously incomplete knowledge of where these well-known birds can be found.”

All but one of these colonies have a small population of fewer than 1,000 birds. Therefore, the discovery of these new colonies does not significantly impact the overall population size. In fact, it is overshadowed by the recent reports of breeding failures caused by early and rapid ice loss.

Screenshot from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), ‘Four new emperor penguin colonies found by satellite’.

Emperor penguins are the largest but least prevalent Antarctic penguin species, with scientists estimating a total population of about 600,000. They depend on stable sea ice – formed when the ocean surface freezes but attached to the shore, and known as land-fast ice – for breeding. They lay eggs in May and June. Chicks are born 65 days later, but typically do not fledge until December or January.

The continuity of this process is at risk due to a significant decrease in the amount of sea ice. In the last two years, the coverage of sea ice has been the smallest since we started using satellites to record data in 1979. The four years with the least amount of sea ice have all been within the last four years.

Fretwell stated that the projections for the emperor penguin population in light of the climate emergency were alarming. It is estimated that approximately 30% of emperor penguin colonies have been impacted by the melting of sea ice since 2018.

The paper referenced models which indicated that if carbon dioxide emissions continued to increase at the current rate, most colonies would become “quasi-extinct” by the end of the century. Despite global leaders setting goals to decrease emissions from burning fossil fuels, they actually increased last year.

Source: theguardian.com