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Study finds way more emperor penguins than previously thought

New satellite data reveals that emperor penguins are far more abundant in Antarctica than previously estimated. 

By Andrea MustainOurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer / April 13, 2012

Emperor penguins gather in Dumont d'Urville, Antarctica, on Tuesday. Counting emperor penguins in their icy Antarctic habitat was not easy until researchers used new technology to map the birds from space, and they received a pleasant surprise for their efforts: It turns out that there are many more penguins than previously thought.

Martin Passingham/Reuters

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Emperor penguins in Antarctica are far more plentiful than previously thought, a study that used extremely high-resolution imagery snapped by satellites has revealed.

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"It surprised us that we approximately doubled the population estimate," said Peter Fretwell, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey and lead author of a paper published today in the journal PLoS One.

Fretwell said that in contrast to previous estimates, which put emperor penguin numbers somewhere between 270,000 and 350,000 birds, the new research counted 595,000 birds.

Antarctic research is challenging, since humans can essentially only work on the frigid continent for three months out of the year, and nailing down hard numbers for the iconic birds has proved difficult.

Bird census

The last overall population estimate, done in 1992, found that approximately 135,000 to 175,000 emperor penguins lived around the continent. [See Antarctica's iconic emperor penguins in action.]

Fretwell and a team of researchers melded several kinds of high-definition imagery captured by satellites to arrive at their new number. They sharpened the images to allow them to differentiate between penguins, shadows on the ground, and the penguins' poop, which is plentiful enough to show up in satellite pictures.

The team also used actual ground counts of penguins in their analysis. "The ground counts told us the density of penguin clusters, and we used this to multiply the area of penguins calculated by our satellite image analysis into penguin numbers," Fretwell told OurAmazingPlanet in an email.

The analysis not only doubled the previous estimate of emperor penguins, but also uncovered seven previously undiscovered colonies.

Fretwell said this kind of research is important, particularly in the face of a changing climate.

Penguin future

There are concerns that changes to Antarctica's ice heralds a difficult future for emperor penguins. The birds breed on the Antarctic sea ice during the brutal winter months, but earlier spring melts may pose threats to the more northern colonies, according to a statement from the British Antarctic Survey.

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