An international team of scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, University of Minnesota/National Science Foundation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Australian Antarctic Division collaborated on a survey aimed at counting emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) from space, using high-resolution satellite mapping technology. Lead author and geographer Peter Fretwell at the British Antarctic Survey said the research findings are groundbreaking because they provide a benchmark for monitoring how the penguins are affected by environmental change.
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Fretwell P.T., LaRue M.A., Morin P., Kooyman G.L., Wienecke B., et al. 2012. An Emperor Penguin Population Estimate: The First Global, Synoptic Survey of a Species from Space. PLoS ONE 7(4): e33751. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033751
Abstract – Our aim was to estimate the population of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes fosteri) using a single synoptic survey. We examined the whole continental coastline of Antarctica using a combination of medium resolution and Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery to identify emperor penguin colony locations. Where colonies were identified, VHR imagery was obtained in the 2009 breeding season. The remotely-sensed images were then analysed using a supervised classification method to separate penguins from snow, shadow and guano. Actual counts of penguins from eleven ground truthing sites were used to convert these classified areas into numbers of penguins using a robust regression algorithm. We found four new colonies and confirmed the location of three previously suspected sites giving a total number of emperor penguin breeding colonies of 46. We estimated the breeding population of emperor penguins at each colony during 2009 and provide a population estimate of ~238,000 breeding pairs (compared with the last previously published count of 135,000–175,000 pairs). Based on published values of the relationship between breeders and non-breeders, this translates to a total population of ~595,000 adult birds. There is a growing consensus in the literature that global and regional emperor penguin populations will be affected by changing climate, a driver thought to be critical to their future survival. However, a complete understanding is severely limited by the lack of detailed knowledge about much of their ecology, and importantly a poor understanding of their total breeding population. To address the second of these issues, our work now provides a comprehensive estimate of the total breeding population that can be used in future population models and will provide a baseline for long-term research.