Scientists Discover Four New Emperor Penguin Colonies From Satellite Images of Antarctica

The findings are a rare bright spot for the birds, which scientists predict will be mostly extinct by 2100

Colony of emperor penguins on ice
Emperor penguins are the largest penguins in the world, but they're at risk of disappearing because of human-caused climate change. Christopher Walton / British Antarctic Survey

Emperor penguins—and the conservationists working to protect them—have endured a slog of bad news in recent years, thanks in large part to human-caused climate change. Amid a warming world, scientists now predict the birds will be quasi-extinct—in short, doomed—by the end of the century.

But, this week, a scientist announced a rare bright spot in the emperor penguin world: Satellite photos have revealed four previously unknown colonies, adding a total of about 5,700 pairs to the estimated population. The colonies were described in a new paper published in the journal Antarctic Science on Saturday.

Standing up to four feet tall, emperors are the largest species of penguins in the world. They can weigh up to 100 pounds, which, as Live Science’s Kiley Price notes, is about the same weight as most 13-year-old human boys.

Satellite view of penguin colony on Antarctica
One of the new colonies, as seen from the Maxar WorldView-3 satellite British Antarctic Survey

Scientists who study emperor penguins regularly scour satellite imagery in an effort to keep tabs on the birds, since their brown guano stands out against the bright white backdrop of their Antarctic breeding sites—even from space.

Recently, researchers have also been using satellites to follow the birds as they search for new breeding grounds amid declining sea ice. Unlike most other penguins, which nest on patches of bare ground during the Antarctic summer, emperor penguins breed, lay their eggs and raise their young atop sea ice in the dead of winter. More specifically, emperor penguins need “land-fast” ice, a type of stable sea ice that is firmly attached to the shore.

But sea ice is becoming increasingly unreliable. In 2022, early sea ice breakup likely killed more than 9,000 chicks in the Bellingshausen Sea, which researchers described as a “catastrophic breeding failure.” Because young birds do not yet have waterproof feathers like their parents, they can’t survive in the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean if their icy platform melts too soon in their development.

While searching for colonies that had possibly tried to relocate, study author Peter Fretwell, a geographic information officer with the British Antarctic Survey, found the four new groups instead.

Two adult emperor penguins with a fluffy chick
Until their waterproof feathers come in, chicks need to stay on sea ice to survive. British Antarctic Survey

Fretwell—who has discovered other emperor penguin colonies in the past—looked at photos from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite and the Maxar WorldView-3 satellite taken between 2018 and 2022.

Now, the total number of known emperor penguin colonies is 66.

The study identified a colony that scientists once thought had disappeared altogether. However, it has actually just re-established itself 18 miles east of its previous breeding grounds. Those birds relocated to a spot near the MacDonald Ice Rumples after their old site on the Brunt Ice Shelf calved off into the ocean, according to a statement from the British Antarctic Survey.

“It just shows this is a species that has to be dynamic,” Fretwell tells BBC News’ Jonathan Amos.

As the planet warms, “penguins will be on the move,” says Daniel Zitterbart, a penguin researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who was not involved in the study, to Christina Larson of the Associated Press.

Quadrants showing satellite view of different parts of Antarctica
Peter Fretwell discovered the penguins on the satellite images by looking for brown guano stains on the white ice. British Antarctic Survey

Though one of the newly identified colonies was large, the other three had fewer than 1,000 members. So, while the satellite-assisted discoveries were exciting, the new colonies will likely make “little difference to the overall population size,” says Fretwell in the statement.

An estimated 250,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins exist in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists the species as “near threatened.”

Overall, the birds are still in trouble. In August, sea ice was much lower than the 1981-2022 median—roughly 850,000 square miles, an area larger than Greenland, was missing. The continent clocked its lowest annual maximum sea ice extent last year by a large margin.

The findings “give us an idea of the distribution and where the colonies are, and that’s really, really important if we’re going to monitor how they adapt to climate change,” Fretwell tells NBC News’ Alexander Smith. “But it doesn’t change the big picture that much.”

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