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August 5, 2020

There are a lot more emperor penguins in Antarctica than previously thought, a new study has found.

Using space technology to identify guano, or penguin poop stains on the sea ice, scientists discovered there are about 20 percent more emperor penguin colonies than were previously recorded. This represents a 5 to 10 percent increase in population, bringing the total to just above half a million.

The study, published in Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, relied on satellite imagery from the European Space Agency's Copernicus Mission's Sentinel2 sensor.

Many of the newly discovered colonies are breeding offshore, a surprising new behavior. But these locations aren't ideal with the way Earth's climate is shifting. They are in "areas likely to be highly vulnerable under business‐as‐usual greenhouse gas emissions scenarios," the study reports.

Phil Trathan, Head of Conservation Biology at British Antarctic Survey, and one of the study's authors, notes that birds in offshore areas are likely to be "canaries in the coalmine," for climate change, and will need to be monitored carefully.

The study concludes that climate change is likely to affect the emperor penguins, and the newly discovered colonies are projected to become extinct or quasi‐extinct by the end of this century. "Our findings therefore suggest the possibility of an even greater proportion of the global population will be vulnerable to climate change, than previously considered." Taylor Watson

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