Thousands of Emperor Penguins Discovered by Satellite


A careful study of satellite imagery has revealed four previously unknown colonies of emperor penguins along the edges of Antarctica, a promising discovery in a region increasingly endangered by climate change.

The loss of sea ice has forced emperor penguins around Antarctica to seek out new breeding grounds, with some colonies traveling more than 20 miles in search of stable ice. Scientists from the British Antarctic survey were scanning satellite images for such breeding areas when they happened upon the four new colonies.

Emperor colonies are easy to spot from above. Measuring up to four feet tall, emperors are the largest of all penguins, and their voluminous brown excrement stands out against the white snow. The new discoveries, first reported in Antarctic Science, bring the total number of known colonies to 66.

An emperor penguin colony discovered in a satellite image. The tiny black dots are penguins, while large brown areas are their excrement. Maxar TechnologiesMaxar

An emperor penguin colony discovered in a satellite image. The tiny black dots are penguins, while large brown areas are their excrement. Maxar TechnologiesMaxar

For emperors, breeding is a harrowing affair. Each year females will lay a single egg on a stretch of sea ice at the start of the Antarctic winter. For the next two months, males will keep the eggs warm while females go hunting, gorging themselves on food they can later regurgitate for their hatchlings. During this time, males will eat nothing, scarcely moving from their eggs.

Emperor penguins with their young. Christopher Michel via Flickr

Emperor penguins with their young. Christopher Michel via Flickr

The breeding process has been made all the more arduous by the loss of sea ice, which hit record lows in 2017, 2022, and again in 2023. Compared to the historical average, last year sea ice coverage was down roughly 800,000 square miles, an area the size of Greenland.

Scientists say that, while the new discoveries are encouraging, emperors remain at risk from warming. “All except one of these colonies are small, with less than 1,000 birds, so finding these new colonies makes little difference to the overall population size,” Peter Fretwell, of the British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement. “In fact, it is overshadowed by the recently reported breeding failures due to the early and fast ice loss.”

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