Emperor Penguins Get the Eagle Eye

You know that feeling that you get sometimes where you feel like someone is watching you? Well, the entire world’s population of emperor penguins probably just got that feeling.

And they were right.

An international collaboration of scientists recently used satellite imaging to count pretty much the entire population of emperor penguins. This would seem impressive, except I’ve already seen the movie Eagle Eye and know what the CIA is capable of…

Getting back on track, three of the colleagues were from the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center and report in the online journal PLoS One that they had grossly underestimated the number of waddling birds in tuxedos.

The team took snapshots of the entire Antarctic coastline and analyzed them. Using computers, they trained an algorithm to spot breeding colonies. If the photo to the right here is any indication, it wasn’t that hard to spot colonies due to the massive shit stain the birds leave behind.

That’s right, that giant black smear over the white landscape is a giant racing stripe.

More difficult, though, was training the algorithm to differentiate individual penguins from each other, shadows and, again, their shit stains. To count them, the group used a technique called pansharpening to sharpen the color satellite images. Then, knowing how much space a bird takes up allowed them to convert areas covered into numbers of birds. They figured this number out through spot checks – actually going to some of the colonies and counting the birds to make sure they were on target.

The results revealed some new, unknown breeding colonies and the fact that there are about 595,000 emperor penguins, which is a lot more than the 170,000 to 350,000 that had been estimated.

Besides getting a pretty solid number, the research will allow the scientists to track how climate change and human interaction affects the population. In addition, keeping track of individual colonies could allow them to spot problems with individual groups and investigate to see what’s going on.

Involved in the study was Michelle LaRue, research fellow at the center and graduate student in Conservation Biology, Paul Morin, director of the Polar Geospatial Center, and Claire Porter, remote sensing scientist at the Polar Geospatial Center.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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