Penguin Empire from Space Seen as Double the Size

The first comprehensive census of a species taken from space shows that emperor penguin populations are almost double previous estimates.

The crazy tinfoil-hat wearing penguins were right! Satellites ARE monitoring them from space, counting them, watching their movements and feeding that information to a database.

But don't fret, Happy Feet, the black helicopters won't be coming for you any time soon.

The satellites are actually providing the first ever species-wide population count of an animal. The space-based species census had good news:

"We are delighted to be able to locate and identify such a large number of emperor penguins," lead author Peter Fretwell, a geographer for the British Antarctic Survey, said in a press release. "We counted 595,000 birds, which is almost double the previous estimates of 270,000 – 350,000 birds. This is the first comprehensive census of a species taken from space."

Earlier studies had to contend with the remote location and extremely cold temperatures of the penguins' breeding area around the coastline of Antarctica, which limited how comprehensive they could be.

From an even more remote and cold location, the satellites were able to snap highly detailed images of the birds as they waddled about on the ice.

A technique known as pan-sharpening allowed scientists to tell the difference between birds, ice, shadow and piles of penguin poo. On the ground population surveys and aerial photography helped them calibrate their counts to ensure accuracy.

An accurate population count will help biologists monitor emperor penguin populations as their habitat warms.

The research was published in PLoS ONE.


Emperor penguins, (Aptenodytes forsteri), in Antarctica. (National Science Foundation, Wikimedia Commons)