Satellite Images of Penguin Guano From Space Lead to Discovery of 9,000 Penguins in Antarctica

In 2009, scientists noticed some odd stains cropping up in satellite images of Antarctica's Princess Ragnhild Coast. Now, explorers have traveled there -- the first humans to visit the 9,000-odd emperor penguin kingdom.

manchots-rockerie-06.jpg

(International Polar Foundation)

Emperor penguin colonies are not easy to find: Their breeding grounds are remote, icy expanses, that are unobservable at distances greater than just a few kilometers due to the curvature of the Earth.

So scientists who want to monitor how these birds are faring in an unstable environment have had to come up with inventive ways of spotting them. One effective option: Penguin guano stains, as viewed from space.

In 2009, researchers published a paper identifying 10 new penguin colony locations based on satellite images of "faecal staining." "We can't see actual penguins on the satellite maps because the resolution isn't good enough. But during the breeding season the birds stay at a colony for eight months. The ice gets pretty dirty and it's the guano stains that we can see," Peter T. Fretwell, one of the paper's authors, told the Guardian at the time. In addition to the 10 new colonies, they were also able to confirm or revise the locations of 26 previously known colonies as well.

penguinsatelliteimage615.jpg

Global Ecology and Biogeography

Now one of those 10 colonies has received its first human visitors: In December, a team of Belgian and Swiss explorers traveled by snowmobile and foot 30 miles from their base on the Derwael Ice Rise, where they are studying ice loss. They arrived at the colony around midnight (still light out in Antarctica at that time of year) and were stunned to find thousands upon thousands of penguins, some 9,000 or 10,000 all told, depending on who's counting.

"It was almost midnight when we succeeded in finding a way down to the ice through crevasses and approached the first of five groups of more than a thousand individuals, three quarters of which were chicks. This was unforgettable moment," Alain Hubert, the expedition's leader, said in a statement.

On NPR, Hubert described that moment to host Neal Conan (worth listening to in full), "After a few minutes, you have those penguins, you know, just comes to say hello and to look at you, because they are the local population. We are not." The guano, Hubert told Conan, doesn't smell -- it's too cold. But, he reports, "I spoke to some scientists that and they told me, if it was a bit warmer, it's really smelly."

Pictures from the expedition capture that moment of first contact and more are available on Hubert's website:

manchots-rockerie-01.jpg

International Polar Foundation

manchots-rockerie-02.jpg

International Polar Foundation

manchots-rockerie-03.jpg

International Polar Foundation

manchots-rockerie-05.jpg

International Polar Foundation

manchots-rockerie-16.jpg

International Polar Foundation

manchots-rockerie-20.jpg

International Polar Foundation

manchots-rockerie-23.jpg

International Polar Foundation

manchots-rockerie-24.jpg

International Polar Foundation

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we still save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Desegregated, Yet Unequal

A short documentary about the legacy of Boston busing

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

Social Media: The Video Game

What if the validation of your peers could "level up" your life?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

Just In