Researchers studying NASA satellite images from its Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica discovered a new, large colony penguins in Antarctica, but what they spotted first wasn’t the tuxedo-like birds themselves — it was evidence of their feces.
This initial discovery occurred in 2009, but it wasn’t until last month that researchers made their first in person contact with the Emperor penguins. According to Arcticstation.org, even though satellite images picked up on fecal staining of ice, suggesting the colony, they were unconfirmed until the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica team visited in December 2012.
“Since we started operating along Princess Ragnhild Coast we have encountered so many emperors penguins that I was convinced that a colony must be installed somewhere in the east,” expedition leader Alain Hubert said according to Antarcticstation.org, which noted that the colony is of about 9,000 penguins.
“I knew from last year’s satellite study that there could potentially be an emperor colony east of Derwael ice rise. Because we were operating not far from this the satellite location, I decided to force the way and try to access to this remote and unknown place. The surprise was even more than all I could have expected or dreamed about: I realised while counting the penguins that this was a very populated colony.”
“It was almost midnight when we succeeded in finding a way down to the ice through crevasses and approached the first of five groups of more than a thousand individuals, three quarters of which were chicks. This was [an] unforgettable moment!”
If you are curious about the study that first indicated the colony might exist based on evidence of their fecal matter, here’s more from the abstract describing the methodology:
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.
Using this method, at the time 10 new colonies of Emperor penguins were found.
See more of the first pictures of the penguin colony here.