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Penguins and Their Icy World

Posted April 20, 2012 @ 7:08pm | by TravelWild

Some welcome good news: researchers in Britain and Minnesota have used satellite images to discover that populations of emperor penguins are twice that previously thought, with not only the numbers doubling from around 300,000 to almost 600,000 but the discovery of seven previously unknown colonies.

Using a technique known as pan-sharpening to increase the resolution of the satellite imagery, the science teams were able to differentiate between birds, ice, shadow and penguin poo (guano).

They then used ground counts and aerial photography to calibrate the analysis. These birds breed in areas that are very difficult to study because they are remote and often inaccessible with temperatures as low as -58°F (-50°C).

Lead author and geographer Peter Fretwell at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which is funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, said the research findings are groundbreaking.

“We are delighted to be able to locate and identify such a large number of emperor penguins,” Fretwell said. “We counted 595,000 birds, which is almost double the previous estimates of 270,000 to 350,000 birds. This is the first comprehensive census of a species taken from space.”

On the ice, emperor penguins with their black and white plumage stand out against the snow and colonies are clearly visible on satellite imagery. This allowed the team to analyze 44 emperor penguin colonies around the coast of Antarctica, with seven previously unknown.

“The methods we used are an enormous step forward in Antarctic ecology because we can conduct research safely and efficiently with little environmental impact, and determine estimates of an entire penguin population,” said co-author Michelle LaRue from the University of Minnesota Polar Geospatial Center, which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and is part of the university’s College of Science and Engineering.

“The implications of this study are far-reaching,” LaRue added. “We now have a cost-effective way to apply our methods to other poorly-understood species in the Antarctic, to strengthen on-going field research, and to provide accurate information for international conservation efforts.”

About the animal, LaRue adds,

“They exude their name,” she said. “They’re a very stately and calm animal.”

When she and other scientists visited Antarctica to see emperor penguins in person, she said the birds were gentle and curious, exploring humans who were careful not to make any sudden moves on the ice.

“They’re just really cool creatures,” LaRue said. “They’ll get one to two feet away and just kind of check you out. They’re not aggressive at all.”

A photo slideshow is here.

A BBC reporter travels to Antarctica, extolling the penguins’ photogenic qualities while soberly bringing to awareness that these species are today’s “canary” for global climate change, due to their sensitivity to changes in their environment.  Explains researcher Ron Naveen of Oceanities,

“Penguins are sending us messages that we need to be listening to. Whatever responses the penguins are showing in the polar latitudes, at some point the great warming will hit the rest of us living in the more temperate latitudes …  it will give us a clue as to what’s going to happen to us maybe decades from now, maybe centuries from now.”

A visit to Antarctic is a starkly beautiful and surreal visual feast, not to mention a testimonial to nature’s power.  Take a 3 minute vacation with a group of travelers who managed to capture the rapid implosion of an iceberg. Hint:  you will want to turn down your computer’s volume!

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