Spaced-Based Census Doubles Emperor Penguin Numbers

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Given the inhospitable vastness of Antarctica, where temperatures regularly dip below -50c, counting the continent's most iconic species had long been a challenge, but not anymore. Thanks to a little help from space, researchers undertaking a census of Emperor penguins at the South Pole now say they have a better idea of how many of the flightless, tuxedoed birds live there -- and it's nearly twice as many as previous thought.

Using the latest in satellite imaging technology, a international team of scientists scoured Antarctica's frozen landscape for signs of Emperor penguin colonies. All told, they counted 44 separate penguin hangouts, including seven that were as yet undiscovered.

According to the BBC, biologists used these aerial surveys to make a more accurate guess as to the number of penguins present in each colony, all without having to brave the region's freezing temperatures, and what they found was quite remarkable. Previously, there were believed to be as few as 270 thousand Emperor penguins in Antarctica -- now researchers say that number as more than doubled, to an estimated 595 thousand.

Co-author Michelle LaRue from the University of Minnesota said the monitoring method provided "an enormous step forward in Antarctic ecology".

"We can conduct research safely and efficiently with little environmental impact," she explained. "The implications for this study are far-reaching. We now have a cost-effective way to apply our methods to other poorly understood species in the Antarctic."

Tags: Biology | Birds