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London, England – Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey are using satellite images to track colonies of Emperor Penguins by the stains on the Antarctic ice caused by their guano.
The penguins can grow to four feet tall and weigh as much as 80 pounds. As a result, the ice gets ‘pretty dirty’ say the scientists who have located 38 colonies on the satellite images, including ten that were previously unknown.
The satellite images are more accurate that the previous method of tracking the birds by ship or helicopter. Higher resolution images can hopefully be used to count the number of penguins in each colony and keep track of any decline in numbers.
Peter Fretwell, co-author of the study and geographic information officer at the British Antarctic Survey, said the discovery would revolutionize the way scientists kept tabs on penguins.
“Now we can locate the colonies we will be able to go out and get an accurate count of the total breeding population,” he says. “It was purely by chance that I realized I could see the red-brown stains on the sea ice, which is formed every year in the Antarctic winter and usually looks absolutely pristine and white.”
“Emperor penguins are quite big birds and it gets quite messy and very smelly. I think remote sensing is the best way to monitor them as you really don’t want to get too close.”
Fretwell had been studying satellite photography of the British Antarctic Survey base on the Brunt ice shelf in October 2008 when he noticed a brown stain on the satellite images.
“It was a bit of a eureka moment,” he added with a straight face.
Apart from penguin crap, other objects visible from space include the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China and landfill sites full of unwanted AOL CDs. Sightings of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2002 owed rather more to overactive imagination than high resolution satellite imagery.