Scientists count Emperor penguins from space, find twice as many than previously thought

Nadine Bells
Good News

National Geographic calls it "the first-ever penguin census from space."

High-resolution satellite images allowed scientists to count Antarctica's emperor penguin population, revealing twice as many tuxedoed birds than previously thought.

"Yes, this is the first comprehensive census of a species taken from space, absolutely," Barbara Wienecke, a sea bird ecologist with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), told Reuters.

A new technique called pansharpening offered a high enough resolution for scientists to differentiate between the ice, bird poop and the individuals birds.

It's the same thing as "when you're looking through binoculars and tightening them up, making [your subject appear in] finer detail," study co-author Michelle LaRue, a Ph.D. student in conservation biology at the University of Minnesota, told National Geographic.

From the images taken in 2009 by the private satellites Quickbird2, Worldview2, and Ikonos, scientists counted about 595,000 emperor penguins. Previous estimates of the population came in between 270,000 and 350,000 penguins.

Study leader Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey says his team identified seven new emperor penguin colonies.

"We are delighted to be able to locate and identify such a large number of emperor penguins," Fretwell said in a statement.

The new satellite-based methods can now be used to monitor the penguins, especially those likely to be affected by climate change in Antarctica's northern regions.

"This study gives us that baseline population, which is quite surprising because it's twice as many as we thought, but it also gives us the ability to follow their progress to see if that population is changing over time," he told BBC News.

Scientists hope to use this technology to count other Antarctic species, like Weddell seals and Adélie penguins, from space.

"The methods we used are an enormous step forward in Antarctic ecology," LaRue said.