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Penguin poop images from space reveal Antarctic colonies

Frank Jordans, August 9, 2020 7:00PM AP

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This image, taken by Europe’s Sentinel-2 satellite, show smudges on the ice which are evidence of an emperor penguin colony. media_cameraThis image, taken by Europe’s Sentinel-2 satellite, show smudges on the ice which are evidence of an emperor penguin colony.


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Scientists say there are more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than previously thought, based on evidence of bird droppings spotted from space.

A study by scientists at the British Antarctic Survey counted 61 emperor penguin colonies dotted around the southernmost continent, 11 more than the number previously confirmed.

Scientists used images from Europe’s Sentinel-2 satellite* mission to look for smudges on the ice that indicated large amounts of guano, or penguin poop.

The majestic emperor penguin breeds in remote areas where temperatures can drop as low as -50C.

Undated photo released by the British Antarctic Survey on 01/06/2009 shows Emperor penguins and chicks near the research centre at Halley Bay, Antartica with the penguins, among the largest in the world, are hard to track during Antarctica's harsh winters. Scientists now can track them by using satellites to look for their guano stains on the otherwise white ice. media_cameraEmperor penguins and their chicks near the British Antarctic Survey’s research centre at Halley Bay in Antarctica.

Researchers have long relied on aerial photographs and satellites to spot colonies of the flightless marine birds.

Peter Fretwell, a British Antarctic Survey geographer and the study’s lead author, called the latest count “good news” but noted that the newly spotted colonies were small.

“(They) only take the overall population count up by 5-10 per cent to just over half a million penguins or around 265,500-278,500 breeding pairs,” he said.

media_cameraEmperor penguins in East Antarctica. Picture: AFP/Pew Charitable Trust

Emperor penguins are vulnerable* to the loss of sea ice predicted to occur because of man-made global warming.

Some researchers suggest the number of colonies could drop by more than 30 per cent by the end of the century.

Some of the newly discovered colonies are located far offshore, on sea ice that has formed around grounded icebergs and which is particularly at risk of disappearing.

16/02/1999. Emperor penguins carefully cross cracks in the sea ice in the Antarctica. Animal / Penguin media_cameraEmperor penguins carefully cross cracks in the sea ice in Antarctica.

Yan Ropert-Coudert, an ecologist* who wasn’t involved in the latest study, said that while satellite images were a powerful tool for tracking penguin colonies, large-scale explorations and counts on the ground were also needed.

Reliable assessment of local and global populations were necessary for conservation* bodies to decide what actions were needed to protect the species, said Mr Ropert-Coudert, who heads the biological* sciences section of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.


  • satellite: a machine that has been launched into space and is used for communication back on Earth
  • vulnerable: at risk of being harmed
  • conservation: stopping the loss or waste of a resource
  • biological: to do with living things


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Penguin population collapses


  1. How many emperor penguin colonies were counted by the British Antarctic Survey?
  2. How many more is this than the number of colonies previously counted?
  3. How low can temperatures get in the areas where emperor penguins breed?
  4. What did the satellite images show as evidence of a penguin colony?
  5. What is making emperor penguins vulnerable?


1. Good news/bad news
This story tells us the “good news” of the discovery of previously unknown emperor penguin colonies, but also tells us the “bad news” that some of these colonies are vulnerable due to global warming. Can you re-write the story in your own words, as either a purely “good news” or purely “bad news” story? You will need to think carefully about which parts of the information to include and which parts to leave out. Choose your language carefully to emphasise the positive or negative feel of the story and make sure you include an attention-grabbing headline.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English

2. Extension
Satellite images were used by scientists to spot the penguin colonies. What else could satellite images and aerial photography be used for? Set a timer for 10 minutes and work with a friend to brainstorm as many different ways to use this technology as you can. Your ideas can be as practical or as crazy as you like!

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English; Critical and Creative Thinking; Technologies

I Spy Nouns
Nouns are places, names (of people and objects), and time (months or days of the week). How many nouns can you find in the article? Can you sort them into places, names and time?

Pick three nouns and add an adjective (describing word) to the nouns.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Would you like to visit Antarctica?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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