New emperor penguin colony in Antarctica discovered from images of their guano stains from space


By Paul Brackley

Published: 07:00, 26 January 2023


The emperor penguin colony at Varieger Point. Picture: MAXAR Technologies



A new emperor penguin colony in Antarctica has been discovered – thanks to the stains of their poo on the ice being visible from space.


It means there are now 66 known emperor penguin colonies around the Antarctic coastline and exactly half of them have been found using satellite mapping technology.


Scientists studied images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission and compared them with high resolution images from the MAXAR WorldView3 satellite for confirmation.


The colony was found thanks to the brown stains of penguin guano standing out from ice and rock – a technique that British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists at Madingley have been using for 15 years to find new colonies.


It is a useful technique because emperor penguins, which need sea ice to breed, are located in areas that are very difficult to study as they are remote and often inaccessible. These areas can experience temperatures as low as −60°C (−76°F).


Lead author Dr Peter Fretwell, who studies wildlife from space at BAS, said: “This is an exciting discovery. The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find many new colonies. And 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.”


We know that emperor penguins are vulnerable to the loss of sea ice since it is their favoured breeding habitat.


Current projections of climate change and warming trends suggest 80 per cent of colonies will be quasi-extinct by the end of the century.


The new site, at Verleger Point West Antarctica, houses around 500 birds and is located at 74° 42’ S, 136° 11’W.


The research was funded by UKRI-NERC as part of the Wildlife from Space project with a contribution from WWF.