Penguins from space: faecal stains reveal the location of emperor penguin colonies


*Correspondence: Peter T. Fretwell, British Antarctic Survey, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK.


Aim  To map and assess the breeding distribution of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) using remote sensing.

Location  Pan-Antarctic.

Methods  Using Landsat ETM satellite images downloaded from the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA), we detect faecal staining of ice by emperor penguins associated with their colony locations. Emperor penguins breed on sea ice, and their colonies exist in situ between May and December each year. Faecal staining at these colony locations shows on Landsat imagery as brown patches, the only staining of this colour on sea ice. This staining can therefore be used as an analogue for colony locations. The whole continental coastline has been analysed, and each possible signal has been identified visually and checked by spectral analysis. In areas where LIMA data are unsuitable, freely available Landsat imagery has been supplemented.

Results  We have identified colony locations of emperor penguins at a total of 38 sites. Of these, 10 are new locations, and six previously known colony locations have been repositioned (by over 10 km) due to poor geographical information in old records. Six colony locations, all from old or unconfirmed records, were not found or have disappeared.

Main conclusions  We present a new pan-Antarctic species distribution of emperor penguins mapped from space. In one synoptic survey we locate extant emperor penguin colonies, a species previously poorly mapped due to its unique breeding habits, and provide a vital geographical resource for future studies of an iconic species believed to be vulnerable to future climate change.