Remote sensing by means of satellite imagery lends itself to land use planning, weather forecasting and tracking of diverse environmental resources, including wildlife. European Space Agency scientists have been relying on data from Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite sensors to survey Emperor penguin populations, saving researchers the task of exposing themselves to Antarctic conditions.

The imagery for the 2016 to 2019 period reveals the existence of eight new Emperor penguin colonies and confirms the location of three previously reported breeding sites. The new populations were discovered not by Sentinel2 satellite imagery of three of the newly discovered or rediscovered colonies. Source: Peter T. Fretwell et al.Sentinel2 satellite imagery of three of the newly discovered or rediscovered colonies. Source: Peter T. Fretwell et al.identifying the birds themselves, but by analyzing the imagery for brown stains indicative of penguin poop, or guano. The researchers focused on color infrared and short-wave infrared band combinations, which afforded the highest contrast between guano and sea ice.

Most of the newly identified colonies are at the margins of the emperors’ breeding range, which could dwindle as the climate continues to warm. Some colonies were found 180 km offshore, situated on sea ice that had formed around icebergs grounded in shallow water. These findings published in Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation bring the total number of known sites to 65 of which 61 are still extant. Thirty of these breeding locations have been discovered using satellite imagery.

Addition of the new colonies bumps the overall population count up by 5% to 10%, to just over half a million penguins.

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