New Study Bumps Global Emperor Penguin Numbers by 10 Percent

Ruben Fields
August 7, 2020

In a press release, Phil Trathan, the head of conservation biology at the BAS and a coauthor on the study, says these smaller fringe colonies may therefore represent "canaries in the coalmine" for studying the effects of climate change on Emperor penguins.

Scientists discovered 11 new colonies, meaning there are now 61 colonies across the continent overall.

"We need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region".

Since the flightless birds themselves are too small to be seen from satellites, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used images from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 observation program to track penguin guano - their poo.

According to the research published by the British Antarctic Survey today, there are almost 20 per cent more emperor colonies on the remote continent than previously thought.

The 11 colonies were located on Antarctica's coastline, two in the peninsula region, three in the west and the remaining six in the east.

Lead author Dr Peter Fretwell, a geographer at the British Antarctic Survey, said it was an exciting discovery enabled by satellite images of the continent.

"It's good news because there are now more penguins than we thought", he said.

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Previous attempts to understand the full size of Antarctica's emperor penguin population have struggled to capture the data accurately, as the species rely on sea ice to breed. Emperor penguins are hard to study by traditional means because they live in remote and inaccessible areas where temperatures can plunge to minus 50°C.

Emperor penguins are exclusively reliant on sea-ice for breeding, which makes them vulnerable to the climate crisis. "Once the sea ice melts you can't put it back".

Yan Ropert-Coudert, an ecologist who wasn't involved in the latest study, said that while satellite images are a powerful tool for tracking penguin colonies, large-scale explorations and counts on the ground are also needed whenever possible.

"They are all in more northerly, vulnerable locations that will likely lose their sea-ice".

Emperor penguins are now listed as a "Near Threatened" species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A penguin couple in Atka Bay, Antarctica.

But their population, centred around Earth's extreme south, is set to decline up to 70 percent by the end of the century as the planet continues to warm.

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