Originally this story appeared in The Guardian and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Satellite images have revealed 11 previously unknown colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctica, increasing the number of known colonies of emperor birds by 20 percent.
The discoveries were made by noticing the distinctive reddish-brown spots of guano that the birds leave on the ice. The findings were made possible by higher-resolution images from a new satellite, as previous scans were unable to capture smaller colonies.
Two of the colonies were a special surprise. They were found far from shore, living on sea ice that is anchored to grounded icebergs, a place never seen before.
The new colonies are estimated to number several hundred penguins, which is less than the average, so the findings increase the total population of emperor penguins by a smaller proportion by about 5 to 1
Emperor penguins are the only penguins that breed on sea ice rather than on land, making them particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis. All the new colonies are in high-risk areas, and researchers say they will be “canaries in the coal mine” as global warming increasingly affects Antarctica.
“The [new colonies] are an exciting discovery, “said Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who is leading the study. “While this is good news, the colonies are small, so the population alone is just over half a million penguins.”
Philip Tratan, also from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, said: “The new breeding sites are in places where the latest forecasts of the model suggest that the emperor penguins will decrease. Therefore, these birds are probably the canaries in the coal mine – we need to watch these sites closely, as climate change will affect this region. “
Fretwell said one of the colonies is 180 kilometers from Antarctica: “Many of the learned penguins we spoke to don’t believe because you usually expect them to be on shore.” Emperor penguins need stable sea ice, usually attached to the land, for nine months of the year to breed successfully.
A decade ago, there were only 30 colonies, as they are usually in remote and inaccessible places, where winter temperatures can drop to -50 degrees Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit). But then Landsat satellite imagery began to be used. They have a resolution of 30 meters, which is enough to notice the larger colonies.