To Track Penguins, Scientists Use High-Tech Satellite Images of…Droppings

By Allison Bond | June 2, 2009 1:19 pm

penguinWhen emperor penguins are in your vicinity, their signature tuxedos and waddling gaits make them hard to miss. But when scientists from the British Antarctic Survey tried to track Antarctic emperor penguin populations using satellites, the birds proved too small to be seen. That’s when they got the idea to focus on something much larger and darker than the penguins themselves: the stains left by their feces.

Using the patches of poop as a guide, the scientists examined the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica and spotted 38 penguin colonies, including 10 that had never before been recorded.

Emperor penguins, which starred in the adorable documentary March of the Penguins, are at risk of becoming endangered if climate change threatens their habitat and food supply. In fact, populations in some of the colonies could drop by 95 percent by 2010.

Satellites provided the perfect penguin-monitoring solution: Winter is the best time to count the penguins, because they inhabit the ice instead of the water. But the frigid temperatures make studying the birds on-site uncomfortable for humans.

This poop-tracking technique, written up in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, could be useful in detecting changes in penguin populations, showing scientists how the birds react to climate change.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Antarctica and the American Southwest: Former Neighbors?
Discoblog: Antarctic Glaciers Melt and Spill Their Secret: DDT
Discoblog: Balding Penguin Gets a Neoprene Toupee

Image: flicker / lin padgham 

  • Jim Clapp

    Can satellite imagery be used to track other terrestrial animals, such as wildebeast or caribou, that migrate or travel significant distances? Perhaps their droppings would not be visible, but the “trails” they leave in vegetation would be. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t being done already.

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