A rare colony of penguins spotted from space thanks to its toilets

The famous birds of the South Pole have been betrayed by their latrines visible from orbit.

According to LiveScience, researchers have discovered a whole new colony of emperor penguins whose existence had never been documented until now. This is excellent news for naturalists, but the method by which it was identified may surprise the uninitiated; they were spotted from space… thanks to their droppings.

It all started with the work of Peter Fretwell, a researcher affiliated with British Antarctic Survey (LOW). This is a vast English observation campaign of the South Pole, the objective of which is to follow the evolution of the sea ice in the context of global warming.

BAS troops sometimes lead on-site expeditions aboard specialized icebreakers such as the RRS Sir David Attenborough. But they mainly work with satellite images where specialists are looking, for example, for traces of rapid melting of the sea ice, or any other significant modification of this ecosystem.

It was on images of this type that Fretwell was working at the end of last year. Looking at satellite images Copernicus Sentinel-2 of the European Space Agency, he distinguished a small brownish spot which immediately caught his attention.

He therefore chose to observe the area more closely through photos from another satellite, the WorldView-3 by Maxar. The latter has a much greater spatial resolution than the Sentinel-2. He can distinguish objects the size of a shoebox on the surface of the Earth.

These pictures confirmed the researcher’s initial intuition: it was indeed a group of emperor penguins. A great find for the BAS troops. Because even if they are not in a critical state of conservation, colonies of emperor penguins remain relatively rare. The institution explains that currently, only 66 of them have been identified.

Toilets visible from orbit

But it was not the animals themselves that formed the spot observed in the first shots. Because contrary to what one might think, despite the jet-black plumage that covers their backs and heads, emperors are rather good at blending into the landscape of the ice floe – an absolute necessity if they are to hope to survive in this environment surveyed by dangerous hunters. We can cite sea lions, but also apex predators such as killer whales, for whom emperors are a snack of choice.

What betrayed the presence of the penguins was in fact vast open-air latrines. When they occupy a corner of the pack ice for a certain time, the penguin colonies reject large quantities of droppings (we speak of guano) on the pack ice itself, and this is where the stain visible from space came from.

In temperate zones, the droppings of the herds generally merge with the ground. But in this environment, they tint the snow and ice deeply before freezing completely. These brake marks may remain visible for an extended period of time. They therefore constitute an interesting marker for the naturalists who follow these colonies.

Fretwell also delivered an unsavory but interesting anecdote to LiveScience. It turns out that penguins and penguins have their little reputation among specialists in the polar regions. Because near these colonies, the smell is often extremely nauseating, even for seasoned experts. This is especially true for species that mate among rocks.

But the emperor penguins, for their part, mate on the ice. Almost all of the guano is therefore completely frozen inside the ice, and therefore completely odorless. As their name suggests, Emperors are more majestic and not as fragrant as other penguins and penguins “, explains the researcher.

The inhabitants of the poles facing the climate crisis

For the researchers, this not really revolutionary discovery was above all a good pretext to draw attention to the Penguin Awareness Day. Because even if the emperors are not threatened in the very short term, specialists have already been making a worrying observation for several years. The numbers of penguins and penguins, all species combined, are melting like snow in the sun.

The source of this dynamic is obvious: it is obviously global warming. A threat that weighs on all polar ecosystems and their inhabitants, but some are more exposed to it than others. Emperor penguins are particularly concerned since the sea ice plays an essential role in their life cycle. The more it disappears, the darker the horizon for these fascinating animals.

To celebrate Penguin Awareness Day in your own way, we recommend a great classic of wildlife documentaries: the emperor’s walk, produced by Luc Jacquet more than fifteen years ago. Despite regrettable approximations in the service of a sometimes clumsy narration, the film remains a work visually grandfull of sumptuous images that are worth seeing, if only to remember what an immaculate ice floe looks like before it disappears entirely.