New emperor penguin colonies revealed by bird poop visible from space


LONDON — Poop stains are rarely cause for celebration.

But they are the reason Antarctic researchers have been able to identify four new colonies of emperor penguins — a species threatened with extinction by climate change.

A scientist from the British Antarctic Survey used satellite imagery to spot tell-tale patches of the penguins’ guano (a technical term meaning bird poop), visible from space as a series of brown smudges against the vastness of the White Continent.

The four colonies likely existed for years but hadn’t been spotted until Peter Fretwell, a geographic information officer at the British Antarctic Survey, pored over the images. Some of these colonies appear to be moving location as climate change threatens the Antarctic sea ice on which they live and breed.

But while the discovery is invaluable for researchers, they caution it does little to alter the dire long-term prospects for this species, whose sea-ice habitat is being melted by global warming.

“By the end of the century we think that almost all emperor penguin colonies will no longer be viable,” Fretwell, who made the discovery, told NBC News in a telephone interview Wednesday. “They’re not going to survive in the long run.”

Emperor penguins are classed as “near threatened” with around 600,000 of them remaining — a 50% drop over the past half century, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The four new discoveries bring the total known emperor penguin colonies to 66, Fretwell wrote in the journal Antarctic Science on Saturday. The findings “give us an idea of the distribution and where the colonies are, and that’s really, really important if we’re going to monitor how they adapt to climate change,” he said. “But it doesn’t change the big picture that much.”

Scientists have spotted previously unknown colonies of emperor penguins in new satellite imagery. At least some emperor penguins are moving their colonies as melting ice from climate change threatens breeding grounds. (Copernicus/British Antarctic Survey / AP)

Scientists have spotted previously unknown colonies of emperor penguins in new satellite imagery. At least some emperor penguins are moving their colonies as melting ice from climate change threatens breeding grounds. (Copernicus/British Antarctic Survey / AP)

Emperors are the largest species of penguin, often weighing around 90 pounds. But this giant flightless bird also has one of the most precarious breeding practices on earth.

To ensure their chicks fledge in the summer, they breed at the coldest time of year, when temperatures near -50 Fahrenheit and Antarctic winds howl at 120 mph. Male penguins keep chicks warm by balancing the eggs on their feet, and colonies of up to 5,000 huddle together to keep warm — shuffling around so each one gets a turn on the inside, according to the British Antarctic Survey.

But these animals do all of their breeding on Antarctic sea ice, which last year reached its lowest-ever maximum since scientists began measuring in 1979. Some scientists fear the decline is now so extreme that humanity has lost control of what is now an unavoidable snowball effect.

If an ice sheet breaks up before a colony of emperor penguins sees its chicks fledge, the young birds will fall into the water and die, Fretwell said. That’s what happened over the past two years, in particular 2022, which saw a “total breeding failure” in all but one of five known breeding sites, according to another study by Fretwell published last year.

The new colonies identified by Fretwell are mostly small. And at least some of the penguins appear to have moved because of unstable sea-ice conditions, he said in the article published in Antarctic Science.

“When the colonies fail, they will move to other areas,” Fretwell told NBC News.

“We spend all this time monitoring these animals and seeing if they can adapt to climate change, but really, in the end, it’s not the penguins  that need to adapt, it’s us,” Fretwell added. “We need to stop our addiction to fossil fuels — not just for penguins, but for all species, even ourselves.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com



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