Comment »Posted on Saturday 6 June 2009 at 3:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Space & Astronomy

I’m almost tempted to leave you with just the title of this post, but perhaps a little bit of explanation is required. It seems that scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have found a rather novel way to monitor penguin population levels in the ice region – using satellite imaging to search for their poo.

Peter Fretwell and Dr Philip Trathan of the BAS outlined their novel technique in a paper published this week in Global Ecology and Biogeography. Using images taken by space satellites they were able to identify colony locations of emperor penguins in Antarctica. Despite the image quality being too low to pick out individual penguins, they were able to infer the presence of a colony by the distinctive brown stain they left behind.

Spot the stain.
Spot the stain.

Penguin poo, or guano, stands out from the white and blue sea ice as the only brown around. By picking out these areas of discolouration, Fretwell and Trathan found a total of 38 colonies, 10 of which were previously unknown. Emperor penguins are vulnerable to changes in the sea ice, so accurate information about colony locations is important in assessing the impact of climate change on the population.

Whilst searching for poo from space might sound silly, this research actually has important consequences for animal conservation. Unfortunately this method, whilst useful for finding unknown colonies, cannot really provide accurate estimates of the number of birds at each location. As such, the researchers call for further research to determine emperor penguins vulnerability to climate change.

Fretwell, P., & Trathan, P. (2009). Penguins from space: faecal stains reveal the location of emperor penguin colonies Global Ecology and Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2009.00467.x

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