Finding emperor penguin colonies

Emperor penguin colonies around the Antarctic continent updated June 2009
Emperor penguin colonies around the Antarctic continent (Image: Barbara Wienecke)
Male Emperor penguins in a huddle at Auster Rookery.Emperor penguin colony at Taylor Glacier

Emperor penguins are big birds and they usually form large colonies. So how difficult can it be to find out where they gather to breed?

In short, very! This is partly because they decided a long time ago to live in one of Earth’s most inhospitable environments. Also, the penguins breed throughout the Antarctic winter and most of the colonies we know are situated on fast-ice (frozen sea attached to the Antarctic continent). Moreover, emperor penguin colonies are often surrounded by massive icebergs! One could be within a few hundred metres of them and never see them.

Now, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have tried to locate emperor penguin colonies from space. They spent many hours looking at images taken by satellites and found that the guano produced by the penguins could be seen.

Unlike other birds, emperor penguins neither have fixed nests nor are they territorial. The males take over the egg from their mates, put it on top of their feet and cover with a skin fold of their bellies.

Throughout the winter and while they incubate their eggs they move around quite a lot! An emperor penguin colony is very dynamic; during the winter storms the penguins huddle. But when the worst weather is over the colony spreads out, shifts location, the huddles reform during the next blizzard.

Over a few months, the penguins – depending on the size of the colony – can cover an area of several square kilometres with guano! Thankfully today’s satellites have a high enough resolution to pick up these patches.

The BAS scientists may have found up to 10 new colonies. That is very exciting news!

However, it is necessary to verify these findings, particularly where the patches were quite small or where the satellite images were taken in January. Scientists from different nations are now working together to achieve this.

The great news is that we are big step closer to finding out how many emperor penguin colonies there really are!

For people, many colonies are very difficult to reach. But we in the Australian sector of Antarctica are lucky since two emperor penguin colonies are relatively close to one of our Antarctic bases, Mawson Station.

The colony at Auster has about 12,000 breeding pairs while there are about 3000 breeding pairs at Taylor Glacier.

The Taylor Glacier colony is unusual because it is one of the only three colonies of Emperor penguins where the penguins breed on land rather than on the fast-ice.

The other land-based colonies are at Dion Island (Antarctic Peninsula) and at Amundsen Bay, East Antarctica. Taylor Glacier is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) and special permits are required to work there.

This page was last modified on 5 June 2009.