It’s one of the more bizarre, but amazingly forward-thinking conservation stories of our time.
The future of huge numbers of seabirds, including penguins, it turns out, may rely both on the colour of their poo, and how it looks from space.
If you’re wondering how, then read on.
Seabirds, especially penguins can live in some of the remote and hostile places on Earth.
The sheer numbers living in Antarctica can be difficult to track, and so for the last few years scientists have been monitoring penguin colonies from space using satellite cameras.
If you've ever changed a baby's nappy you'll find their contents can be different colours, the same is true of penguins
When analysing the pictures they discovered something quite surprising. The colour of penguin poo – called guano – can be clearly spotted with satellite imagery.
What's more, researchers were then able to differentiate species of penguin by the changing colour of their guano stains against the white background.
Young penguin chicks have much darker guano than adult birds, so when factoring in the known breeding times of Adelie and chinstrap penguins, researchers showed in a recent study that they could identify their colonies from space based only on their unique guano "signatures".
These signatures were then built into an algorithm able to quickly differentiate the guano from the rest of the environment.
That this could be done was almost intuitive to Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey, one of the co-authors of the recent paper in PLoS One. "If you've ever changed a baby's nappy you'll find their contents can be different colours, the same is true of penguins," he explains.
Now in a new paper, a team also led by Fretwell, successfully managed to identify the breeding sites of all other seabird colonies with 50 pairs or more. They did this in a huge area on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, Marguerite Bay.
These seabirds, in addition to penguins, included Dominican gulls, skuas and southern giant petrels.
The unique signatures of their guano then allowed them to map where each colony was based and will now allow them to track where they move over time, findings they present in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.
The density of their guano also gave good indications of the numbers of individuals in each colony of bird which had previously been difficult to obtain.
One emperor penguin colony has been completely lost. The prediction is we're going to lose a lot more over the coming 50 years
While using satellite data to monitor Antarctic seabird populations in this way is not new, it's yielding increasingly more insight into the lives of these animals over time. Once colony habitats have been established scientists then use higher resolution platforms or aerial photography to get more accurate population estimates.
Fretwell's team, for example, were the first to estimate the global population of emperor penguins from space. They discovered that there were twice as many colonies of emperor penguin in Antarctica than had previously been estimated.
It's great news for emperor penguins, says Fretwell, but they, like other species of penguin are at risk of losing their habitat as the climate continues to warm. Emperors are the only sea-bird which breed on sea ice, which is already shrinking in some parts of Antarctica. Estimates from climate scientists suggest it will continue to do so in the long term.
"In some places, for instance on the Antarctic Peninsula where we've seen losses of sea ice, one emperor penguin colony has been completely lost. The prediction is we're going to lose a lot more over the coming 50 years," says Fretwell.
Monitoring colonies over many years is therefore vital, he adds, to understand their population size, general breeding trends and the direct impact a changing climate will have.
Understanding these patterns will be a crucial starting point before scientists can begin to mitigate the knock-on effects of climate and over-fishing.
The team now hope to transfer their tracking skills to observe animals in other parts of Earth's most remote places.
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