Science and Tech


Study Tracks Penguin Migration By Looking At Poop From Space

Researchers had previously believed emperor penguins would die off when unable to relocate because of a changing Antarctic climate.
Posted at 10:09 PM, Jun 25, 2014

A new study shows emperor penguins in Antarctica are more likely to migrate in the face of changing climate than previously thought, thanks to researchers not only tracking the waddling birds but also following their feces.

Of all the things you could spot with satellite imagery, researchers observed trails of dark penguin poop against a cold, white Antarctic canvas. What they found was that emperor penguins are adapting and relocating when the climate gets, well, crappy. (Via BBC)

So, why is that important? Well, according to LiveScience, "Emperor penguins are a philopatric species, meaning they return to the same spot each year to breed." 

But University of Minnesota researchers, who conducted the study, found that's not quite the case. In a release on the school's website, researchers say they found that in six instances within a three-year span, emperor penguin colonies did not return to the same location to mate. 

The study's researcher Michelle LaRue said the penguins' relocation has to do with receding sea ice. 

Emperor penguins forage in the water, but come back to the same place on the sea ice to breed. That sea ice expands in the winter and recedes in the summer. (Via Flickr / Eli Duke)

LaRue explains much of what we know about emperor penguins comes from the Pointe Geologie colony, which was featured in the National Geographic documentary "March of the Penguins." 

Researchers had believed that that colony was cut in half because of a change in climate and the penguins had nowhere to go. But, satellite imagery showed more colonies — and, yes, poop trails — within marching distance of Point Geologie, which challenges current theories about emperor penguins. (Via Flickr / sandwichgirl)

"Because of that, I don't think emperor penguins are not always philopatric. ... I think when times get tough, though, they have the ability to move." (Via Ideacity)

LaRue shied away from making any other conclusions about emperor penguins but said more attention needs to be focused on colony fluctuations. The study will be published in an upcoming edition of the scientific journal Ecography.