Scientists have discovered nearly 20 per cent more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than previously thought in a boost for an embattled species whose favoured breeding grounds are at risk from climate chance.
Researchers using satellite mapping technology found 11 new colonies, taking the total to 61 groups. Emperor penguins are hard to study by traditional means because they live in remote and inaccessible areas where temperatures can plunge to minus 50°C.
They prefer to breed in areas with sea ice, which is likely to recede because of global warming. The research, published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, found that the emperor penguin colonies were found as far as 180 kilometres offshore.
Lead author Dr Peter Fretwell, a geographer at the British Antarctic Survey, said it was an exciting discovery enabled by satellite images of the continent.
“While this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by 5-10 per cent to just over half a million penguins or around 265,500 – 278,500 breeding pairs,” he said.
Dr Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the survey, gave a warning that the species faced major challenges.
"While 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," Dr Trathan said.
"Birds in these sites are therefore probably the 'canaries in the coal mine' – we need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region."