Colony of 500 emperor penguins discovered thanks to satellites

Images from the European Commission's Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission were used and compared with high-resolution images from the American Maxar WorldView-3 satellite

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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Colony of 500 emperor penguins discovered thanks to satellites

Thanks to satellite images, a new colony of 500 emperor penguins has been discovered at Verleger Point in West Antarctica. Images from the European Commission's Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission were used and compared with high-resolution images from the American Maxar WorldView-3 satellite.

For fifteen years, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey have been analyzing satellite images in search of new penguin colonies. One of the tools we probably use the most when we move is the navigator. Thanks to satellite images it is therefore possible to move around the city or reach the holiday destination.

With increasingly fine detail some satellite images manage to show incredible detail. Along the coasts of Antarctica a few days ago a new colony of emperor penguins was added to the 65 already known. Like more than half of those already observed, this one too was discovered thanks to the use of satellite images.

In this case, images from the European Commission's Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission were used and compared with high-resolution images from the American Maxar WorldView-3 satellite. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have been analyzing satellite images for fifteen years in search of new penguin colonies.

Since 2015, ice loss has accelerated. According to experts in 2022 the ice conditions were the worst ever recorded and even more alarming numbers are expected for this year. According to the latest estimates, if we don't stop emissions, we risk losing about 90 percent of penguin colonies.

Emperor penguins are the only penguins that prefer pack ice to dry land for reproduction. Ice is essential, especially from April to September, because in this period the little ones are accumulating energy and if they were to end up in the water they would surely die from drowning or from the cold.

Furthermore, the size of the colony also plays a key role in survival. In particular during the last months of brooding because the bigger a colony is, the more, getting closer to each other, they manage to protect themselves from the freezing winter storms, completing the brood.

Its diet is essentially made up of fish, but it can also include crustaceans such as krill or cephalopods such as squid. While chasing them, it can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes, diving to a depth of 600m. The species is well adapted to diving, as it has a specially structured hemoglobin capable of operating with very low oxygen levels.

The emperor penguin also has solid bones that allow it to resist barotraumas, as well as the ability to reduce metabolism and put some non-vital functions to rest. The emperor penguin is known for its well-regulated life cycle, with adults repeating the same ritual every year to reproduce and raise their young.

It is the only penguin species that reproduces during the Antarctic winter. Males and females make a long ice journey of 50–100 km to form colonies that can include thousands of individuals. The females lay a single egg, then leave the task of brooding to the male and return to the sea in search of nourishment.

Subsequently, the females will return to the colony, and then the males will head towards the sea, while the females remain with the chick. Parents will continue to shuttle for supplies until parental care ends. The life expectancy of the emperor penguin is generally 20 years in the wild, but some observations suggest that some individuals can reach 50 years of age.