Science

Satellite images reveal Antarctica is home to 20 per cent more penguin colonies than thought

Satellite images reveal Antarctica is home to 20 per cent more penguin colonies than previously thought

  • Satellite images from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite helped in the discovery
  • They have found 11 new colonies, increasing the penguin population by 10%
  • The colonies appear as slightly blurry dark patches on the white landscape 

Satellite images of Antarctica have revealed that the frozen continent is home to 20 per cent more penguin colonies than previously thought.

In the study, scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission. 

The discoveries, appearing as slightly blurry dark patches on the white landscape, take the overall population of emperor penguins to more than half a million.

Using satellite mapping technology, scientists discovered 11 new emperor penguin colonies, three of which were previously identified but never confirmed.

The discoveries, appearing as slightly blurry dark patches on the white Antarctic landscape, take the overall population of emperor penguins to more than half a million

The discoveries, appearing as slightly blurry dark patches on the white Antarctic landscape, take the overall population of emperor penguins to more than half a million 

This close-up view of an emperor penguin colony from space appears as a blurry blob but is in fact thousands of birds

This close-up view of an emperor penguin colony from space appears as a blurry blob but is in fact thousands of birds

Using satellite mapping technology, scientists discovered 11 new penguin colonies

Using satellite mapping technology, scientists discovered 11 new penguin colonies

This takes the global census to 61 colonies around the continent, now thought to be home to between 265,500 and 278,500 breeding pairs. 

Researchers say the extraordinary find will help in monitoring the impact of environmental change on the population of this iconic bird.

Lead study author Dr Peter Fretwell, a geographer at BAS said the new satellite images of the Antarctica coastline helped in the exciting discovery. 

‘And whilst this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by five to 10 per cent to just over half a million penguins or around 265,500 to 278,500 breeding pairs,’ Fretwell explained.

Emperor penguins are known to be vulnerable to loss of sea ice, their favoured breeding habitat, and climate predictions suggest this habitat is likely to decline. 

Most of the newly found colonies are situated at the edges of the emperors’ breeding range and these locations are likely to be lost as the climate warms.

Dr Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at BAS, has been studying penguins for the last three decades.

‘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,’ he said.

This takes the global census to 61 colonies around the continent, now thought to be home to between 265,500 and 278,500 breeding pairs. The penguins can be seen as small black dots in this satellite image

This takes the global census to 61 colonies around the continent, now thought to be home to between 265,500 and 278,500 breeding pairs. The penguins can be seen as small black dots in this satellite image

Researchers say the extraordinary find will help in monitoring the impact of environmental change on the population of this iconic bird

Researchers say the extraordinary find will help in monitoring the impact of environmental change on the population of this iconic bird

‘Birds in these sites are therefore probably the ‘canaries in the coal mine’. We need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region.’

A number of penguin colonies were found on sea ice formed around icebergs that have grounded in shallow water.

These colonies, up to 111 miles offshore, are a surprising new finding in the behaviour of this increasingly well-known species.

Studies by other scientists suggest that 80 per cent of colonies will decrease by more than 90 per cent by the end of the century if sea ice around Antarctica decreases by half. 

Even under the best-case scenario, with a global temp increase of 2.7F, the population will decrease by at least 31 per cent over the next three generations. 

EMPEROR PENGUIN IS THE LARGEST SPECIES OF THE FLIGHTLESS BIRD

The Emperor penguin is the largest species of penguin, reaching heights of around four feet (1.2 meters) tall, and weighing between 49 pounds (22 kilograms) and 99 pounds (44 kilograms). 

They are recognisable due to their distinctive black back and head, white breast and yellow patches on their necks.

The flightless birds inhabit the Antarctic, huddling together to keep warm in the icy climate, where temperatures reach as low as -90C.

Emperor penguins breed and raise their young almost exclusively on sea ice, with the females laying eggs before heading off to hunt for food, leaving the males to incubate the egg.

If there's too little sea ice, it reduces the availability of breeding sites and prey for emperor penguins, but too much ice means longer hunting trips for adults, which means they can't feed their chicks as frequently

If there’s too little sea ice, it reduces the availability of breeding sites and prey for emperor penguins, but too much ice means longer hunting trips for adults, which means they can’t feed their chicks as frequently

After the chick is born, parents take turns foraging at sea and caring for the newborn within the colony.

The birds’ diet consists primarily of fish, but they will also eat crustaceans, such as krill, and cephalopods, such as squid. To facilitate hunting the penguins can remain underwater for up to 18 minutes, diving to a depth of 1,755 ft. 

The relationship between Emperor penguins and sea ice is fragile.

If there’s too little sea ice, it reduces the availability of breeding sites and prey, but too much ice means longer hunting trips for adults, which means they can’t feed their chicks as frequently.  



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