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Penguins from Space

April 23, 2012

Researchers have estimated the total number of Emperor Penguins in Antarctica using satellite images.



Penguins on thin ice…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The Emperor Penguin is Antarctica’s most iconic animal, yet until now, no one really knew how many of the flightless birds live there. Scientists from a consortium of research institutions have teamed up to better estimate their numbers using satellite images. Ecologist Michelle LaRue of the University of Minnesota explains.

MICHELLE LaRUE (University of Minnesota):

What we were able to do is basically train the computer to tell the difference between what we tell it is a pixel of Emperor Penguin vs. a pixel of guano vs. a pixel of ice.


The new satellite-based analysis estimates the population at around 600,000 birds, nearly twice the number counted in previous ground-based surveys. LaRue says the technique could be used to estimate other animal populations on the world’s most remote and inhospitable continent. She adds that having an accurate count will allow researchers to track the animals’ response to climate change. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS the science society.

Emperor penguins on the sea ice close to Halley Research Station (British Antarctic Survey)

Researchers teach a computer to distinguish between pixels of guano, penguins and ice. (Digital Globe)