A hidden colony of about 9,000 emperor penguins has received its first human visitors.
And how, you may wonder, were these creatures discovered in a remote part of Antarctica that normally receives no visitors?
It was the penguin poop, more properly called guano, that gave them away.
Here’s a report from Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth Antarctica polar research station:
The remote colony of one-metre-tall emperor penguins was first discovered in satellite imagery by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, and published in a 2009 paper “Penguins from space: faecal stains reveal the location of emperor penguin colonies”. However, the colony’s existence was unconfirmed until the visit from the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica team, who had been supporting the work of glaciologists carrying out scientific research on the Derwael Ice Rise, some 50km from the colony, and 250km from the zero emission base.
Here are some amazing photos of these penguins meeting humans for the first time.
Thus, although these satellite images were created to survey the sea ice around Antarctica’s coast, researchers were able to identify the existence of previously unknown penguin colonies by the huge reddish-brown patches the birds left behind. Well, there are 9000 of them after all!
Emperor penguins spend a considerable part of their lives at sea. Unlike most animals and birds, who breed when the temperatures rise, these creatures return to their colonies on ice to breed during the Antarctic winter when temperatures can drop to -50°C.
Researchers study them because emperor penguin populations are a useful climate change indicator due to the birds’ reliance on sea ice. With only an estimated 200,000 breeding pairs, they are the least common Antarctic penguin.
This penguin-human encounter follows on last year’s discovery of giant penguin fossils in Antarctica: researchers from Argentina uncovered the fossilized remains of a penguin that stood taller than most people, at around 6 feet 5 inches.
And now the exciting discovery of a whole new set of emperor penguin colonies!
Here’s a first-hand report from the three-person team that traveled to the site on Antarctica’s Princess Ragnhild coast in early December. From The Guardian:
The expedition leader, Alain Hubert, said: “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 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.”
They traveled down through crevasses? These researchers took some enormous risks to reach their goal. Bilbo Baggins has nothing on them, I might add.
What an awesome discovery, and a lesson to never underestimate the power of poop!
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