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Emperor penguins from space: British Antarctic Survey uses satellite images to uncover new colonies

There are more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than we thought, a study using satellite mapping technology has shown.

An emperor penguin chick. Picture: Peter Fretwell, BAS
An emperor penguin chick. Picture: Peter Fretwell, BAS

The work by the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey uncovered 11 new colonies, three of which were previously identified but never confirmed, taking the total to 61.

Emperor penguins need sea ice to breed and their remote homes - where temperatures plummet to −50°C (−58F) - make them hard to study.

Emperor penguin and chicks on the sea ice at Halley Bay. Picture: Richard Burt
Emperor penguin and chicks on the sea ice at Halley Bay. Picture: Richard Burt

Researchers used images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission to find them.

Lead author Dr Peter Fretwell, a geographer at BAS, said: “This is an exciting discovery. The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find these new colonies. And whilst this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by 5-10 per cent to just over half a million penguins or around 265,500 – 278,500 breeding pairs.”

Surprisingly, the study found some colonies up to 180km offshore on sea ice that has formed around icebergs grounded in shallow water.

Dr Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at BAS, who has studied the penguins for three decades, added: “Whilst it’s good news that we’ve found these new colonies, the breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperors will decline.

“Birds in these sites are therefore probably the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ – we need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region.”

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