Emperor penguins counted from space—a first
Talk about a bird's-eye view—scientists have taken the first-ever penguin census from space.
What's more, the high-resolution satellite images reveal that there are twice as many emperor penguins in Antarctica than previously thought, a new study says.
Scientists have snapped penguin pictures from space before. But the new work used a technique called pansharpening, which offers high enough resolution for the scientists to differentiate between penguin poop, ice, and the birds themselves.
It's the same thing as "when you're looking through binoculars and tightening them up, making [your subject appear in] finer detail," said study co-author Michelle LaRue, a Ph.D. student in conservation biology at the University of Minnesota.
When LaRue first looked at the sharper satellite images, "I didn't believe that they were actually penguins," she said.
But when "you see it again and again ... there's nothing else it could be."
Emperor Penguins Easy to Spot
The penguin-counting team examined images taken in 2009 by the privately owned Quickbird2, Worldview2, and Ikonos satellites.
From these pictures, the scientists counted about 595,000 emperor penguins—almost double the previous estimates of 270,000 to 350,000 animals made in 1992.
Found only in Antarctica, the 4-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) flightless birds are hard to study because they live in almost inaccessible, frigid colonies.
But their group living, coupled with distinct black-and-white plumage, makes the penguins easy to spot from the air, according to study leader Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey.
The team also identified 7 new emperor penguin colonies, bringing the total to 44, Fretwell said.
"We are delighted to be able to locate and identify such a large number of emperor penguins," Fretwell said in a statement.