Scientists Use Satellites, Poop to Count Emperor Penguins

Scientists have counted almost 600,000 emperor penguins in Antarctica — that's almost twice as many as they'd previously thought. Satellite technology gave a more accurate estimate, but the vast amount of penguin crap played a significant role.

Their census technique relies in the first instance on locating individual colonies, which is done by looking for big brown patches of guano (penguin poo) on the white ice.

Yes, it was the stark contrast of brown on white that helped scientists find colonies. And OK, after that, the high resolution imagery did the hard work of counting.

This information can be used to see the effect climate change is having on penguin population. Without an accurate estimate, it's impossible to monitor changes year to year, as Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) points out.

This study gives us that baseline population, which is quite surprising because it's twice as many as we thought, but it also gives us the ability to follow their progress to see if that population is changing over time.

While the poop spots were relatively easy to find, the actual counting of emperor penguins was a lot tougher, even with high-tech imaging technology. In some areas, researchers had to compare their aerial photographs to ground counts. Still, this is considered to be "the first comprehensive census of a species taken from space."

Climate change is a problem for emperor penguins because rising temperatures speed up the loss of ice floes. Of course, those of us watching Frozen Planet totally knew that already.

[Image via Shutterstock]