The animals themselves cannot be seen on the satellite images, they are too small for that. The colonies were noticed by the large spots on the ice caused by the animals’ feces.
“This is an exciting discovery,” said Peter Fretwell, lead author and geographer at BAS, in a press release. “This is good news, but the colonies are small, so the total population only increases by 5 to 10 percent, to just over half a million penguins or about 265,500 to 278,500 breeding pairs.”
Using the new data, the scientists estimate that there are 61 colonies of emperor penguins across the continent. Three of those spotted colonies had previously been identified, but there was no confirmation.
According to ESA, studying penguins via satellite images is extremely difficult, because the animals live in remote and inaccessible areas where temperatures drop to minus 50 degrees Celsius. Emperor penguins are the only species of penguin to breed on the sea ice rather than on land. Therefore, the species is sensitive to climate change. They need stable ice nine months a year, preferably attached to the land, in order to breed.
The scientists’ findings have been published in the scientific magazineRemote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.