New emperor penguin colony uncovered by satellite
Image credit: P Bucktrout/BAS/PA
A new emperor penguin colony of 500 birds has been discovered in Antarctica using satellite mapping technology, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has said.
The newly discovered colony, announced to mark Penguin Awareness Day, brings the total number of known emperor penguin breeding sites around the coastline of Antarctica to 66 - half of which were discovered by space satellites
The colony is located at Verleger Point, West Antarctica, at 74° 42’ S, 136° 11’W, and has around 500 birds.
The site was identified thanks to penguin guano stains visible in images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission. These were then compared to high-resolution images from the MAXAR WorldView3 satellite for confirmation.
Emperor penguins are the biggest of the 18 penguin species and stand around 1.2m (nearly four feet) tall.
Emperor penguins are the only penguins that breed on sea ice. They are, therefore, found in remote, inaccessible and very cold areas, where temperatures often drop to minus 60ºC, making them very difficult to study.
This is why, for the last 15 years, BAS scientists have relied on satellite imagery to search for new colonies, hunting for their guano stains on the ice.
“This is an exciting discovery," said Dr Peter Fretwell, who led the research."The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find many new colonies.
“Whilst this is good news, like many of the recently discovered sites, this colony is small and in a region badly affected by recent sea ice loss”.
Under current warming trends, as much as 80 per cent of colonies will be quasi-extinct by the end of the century, BAS has warned.
Penguins need the ice to last between April and September to give the chicks time to grow more robust, making them particularly vulnerable to climate breakdown.
“If the ice breaks up before that, the chicks fall into the water and drown or freeze,” said Fretwell.
The size of penguin colonies also has a direct impact on their survival, as the birds huddle together for protection against winter storms, particularly during the two-month period in which the male penguins incubate the eggs before they hatch.
In the past, whole colonies have been lost to changes in sea ice, including one at Marguerite Bay which had been studied since the 1940s, and another in Halley Bay that had been stable for 50 years.
“Most emperor penguins will never see a human in their lifetime, but what we’re doing on the other side of the world is slowly killing them,” said Fretwell.
“Last year, we had the worst-ever sea ice conditions in Antarctica and this year is even worse. We’re still working on what that means for the penguins, but it’s not good.”
Sentinel-2 has been collecting images of Antarctica since 2016 following the request from SCAR, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
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