27 June 2014

Finding elusive emperor penguins

Eastern emperor penguin
colony near Mertz Glacier
Photo credit: Robin Cristofari,
ANTARCTICA - Field surveys and satellites complement each other when studying remote penguin populations, according to research recently published in PLoS ONE by André Ancel from the CNRS in Strasbourg, France, and colleagues.

Emperor penguins living on Antarctica's ice sheets must face moving, breaking and shifting ice. Accurate monitoring of population trends is critical to understanding the ongoing rapid changes in Antarctic ecosystems. But scientists can find such assessments difficult because of Antarctica's remoteness and the logistical complexity of operating on the continent, especially during winter. 

Satellite imaging is being increasingly recognised as a valuable method for remote animal population monitoring, yet its accuracy and reliability are still to be fully evaluated. In this study, the authors report on several successive remote surveys in the coastal region of East Antarctica, both before and after sudden local changes. They also describe the first ground visit of an emperor penguin colony initially discovered by satellite.

The ground survey resulted in the discovery of a second penguin colony not picked up in the satellite survey. The researchers found that these two colonies, with a total of around 7,400 breeding pairs, are located near the Mertz Glacier in an area that went through tremendous habitat change after the glacier tongue broke off in February 2010.

The authors suggest these penguins have considerable potential to quickly adapt to sudden habitat loss, as the colony detected in 2009 may have moved and settled in new breeding grounds.

Overall, the ability of emperor penguin colonies to move after their habitat changes highlights the continued need for a mixture of both remote sensing and field surveys, especially in the less-frequented parts of Antarctica, to gain reliable knowledge about penguin populations.

Finding elusive emperor penguins [press release], 25 June 2014, PLOS

PLoS ONE citation
Ancel A, Cristofari R, Fretwell PT, Trathan PN, Wienecke B, et al. (2014) Emperors in hiding: When ice-breakers and satellites complement each other in Antarctic exploration. PLoS ONE 9(6): e100404. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100404

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