Discovery of hidden penguin colonies in Antarctica boosts known population to more than half a million

Eleven new colonies of emperor penguins have been discovered in Antarctica, scientists have revealed.

Researchers say the “exciting discovery” means the known population of the birds has swelled by around 5%-10% to more than half a million.

It offers an important boost for the future of the species, whose favoured breeding ground is sea ice, which is vulnerable to climate change.

The colonies were revealed in a study using satellite mapping technology, which showed evidence of bird droppings in areas not previously known to be home to the animals.

But while the development was welcomed, Dr Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said the creatures’ habitats remained under threat.

“Whilst it’s good news that we’ve found these new colonies, the breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperors will decline,” he said.

“Birds in these sites are therefore probably the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ – we need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region.”

The findings were published in the journal Remote Sensing In Ecology And Conservation and detailed how images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission were used to locate the birds, whose remote, freezing habitat makes them difficult to study.

They uncovered 11 new colonies, taking the global census to 61 colonies around the continent, to which the species is native.

BAS geographer Dr Peter Fretwell said: “This is an exciting discovery.

“The new satellite images of Antarctica‘s coastline have enabled us to find these new colonies.

“And, whilst this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by 5%-10% to just over half a million penguins, or around 265,500-278,500 breeding pairs.”

Emperor penguins are the largest penguin species, weighing up to 88lb (40kg) and living for around 20 years.

Distinguished by their black and white with yellow ears, pairs breed in the harshest winter conditions, with the male incubating the eggs.

Scientists raised concerns last year over Halley Bay, Antarctica’s second biggest breeding ground for emperor penguins, amid low breeding rates there in recent years.

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