Scientists decided to use the satellites’ capabilities for a slightly different purpose than usual, namely, to calculate the current numbers of this endangered species based on their droppings.
A team of British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists, led by geographer Peter Fretwell, used satellite images of emperor penguin droppings to calculate its current population, finding out that we have 20% more colonies of the species in Antarctica than we thought. This is great news because over the past decade, the emperor penguin’s conservation status has changed from Least Concern to Near Threatened, and it is also being considered for inclusion in the U.S. Endangered Species Act. All because of declining food due to climate change, industrial fishing and other human activities like habitat destruction and tourism.
And why such measurement discrepancies, after all, these large (measuring about 100 cm and weighing about 45 kg), black and white and standing out on the white snow birds are surely easy to count? Well, not really, because maybe the penguins do not try to hide and camouflage themselves, but the climate and conditions in Antarctica are not favourable for counting. Just to mention the darkness for most of the year, as well as the most unfriendly terrain and weather in the world, with temperatures dropping to -50 °C, so making on-the-spot estimates is not at all easy, especially with penguins breeding during the dark of night.
But this is the 21st century, and scientists have come up with the idea that they can, after all, use the Sentinel-2 satellites from the Copernicus program that we have sent into space to provide access to accurate, up-to-date, and readily available satellite imagery for conservation and to better understand the effects of climate change. There is no denying that counting the population of emperor penguins fits in well with these tasks, and although the animals are too small to be seen in these images, the large patches of droppings they leave behind are a completely different story. The method proved to be a hit, as the team found 11 new colonies this way, bringing the total to 61 across the continent and raising the population estimate from 265,500 to 278,500 pairs.
This represents only a 10% increase over previous estimates because the colonies are very small. And although, as the BAS team assures the additional emperor penguins, their lives are still in danger, because the animals live and breed on ice, which is constantly decreasing as it melts due to climate warming. Penguins must therefore retreat further and further into the continent and some colonies have been located as far as 180 km from the shore! As the researchers conclude: – While it’s great news that we’ve found new colonies, all of the breeding sites are in locations where the new prediction models say there is no chance of growth. Birds in these locations are particularly vulnerable, and we need to watch them closely in the context of climate change affecting the region.