Space is the Place (For Counting Penguins)

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How do you make every antarctic explorer before you grind his or her teeth with chilly frustration: Discover something major while just looking at satellite photos of the frozen continent and not actually going there. That's what the scientists who found the emperor penguin population was double what we thought it was, did—and all thanks to high-resolution images. 

Oh, you spent half a year of frozen darkness counting penguins at McMurdo station? Well guess what, that was a total waste because you underestimated their population by half. "Using high-resolution satellite images to study each of 44 colonies around the coastline of Antarctica, experts said on Friday they put the total emperor penguin population at 595,000, or roughly double previous estimates of 270,000 to 350,000," Reuters' Ben Hirschler reports

Some of the scientists who counted the penguins in pictures even came from the the University of California at San Diego, according to their study published at PloS One. That means they could have been studying the birds in short-sleeved shirts after a morning surf session. Then you could've gone for tacos. At McMurdo station, they eat non-perishable food and don't see sun all winter.

But there's not much else to do in the South Pole aside from counting penguins, so we imagine they'll keep right on doing it. Fortunately the satellite watchers can't take all the McMurdo folks' glory: Only emperors are big enough to see from space. The rest you have to count by hand.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.