Penguins from space

Nieuws | de redactie
3 juni 2009 |
Spotting a penguin from space? Look for its poop. Scientists have discovered ten unknown emperor penguin colonies along the Antarctic coast by scanning satellite photos. How? They looked for the reddish-brown stains of their guano.

This approach, the first time satellite images were used to locate the breeding populations of an animal, could prove to be a valuable new way to monitor penguins and climate change as well, reports Global Ecology and Biogeography.

Emperor penguins grow up to 1.2 meters tall, but that doesn’t make them easy to find. They breed on sea ice during the dark, unbearably cold Antarctic winter. By the time scientists start showing up for the summer field season in December, the adults are mostly gone, the chicks are fledging, and the sea ice on which they breed is breaking up. Most of the known colonies have been found when people–usually geologists doing something unrelated, such as conducting aerial surveys–stumble across them.

Penguin biologist Phil Trathan and cartographer Peter Fretwell, both of the British Antarctic Survey, wondered if it was possible to do better by tracking the penguins from space. The birds themselves don’t show up in satellite pictures; their black-and-white bodies are too similar to the white ice with black shadows.

Not so with guano. “The poo just sort of stands out at you,” says Trathan. Emperors are the only penguins that breed on the sea ice, so he knows who’s doing the pooping. Fretwell scanned the coastal sections of the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica, a conglomeration of hundreds of satellite images of the continent taken between 1999 and 2004. “It sends your eyes a bit strange after a couple of days,” says Fretwell. He also performed spectral analysis, using a computer to find the areas that are more reddish, like guano, than bluish, like ice. Then the eye can tell if the reddish area is a smear of guano or, say, an island. Of the 34 previously known colonies, six had disappeared; the ice in those places was squeaky clean. The researchers also found 10 unknown colonies, represented by washes of guano. [source: ScienceNOW]

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