Penguins from space: how scientists are using satellites to count birds

Using images from satellites, scientists are getting a much better picture of just how many emperor penguins there are out there on the ice.
Written by Rose Eveleth, Contributing Editor

There are about 3,000 satellites circling the earth right now. They transmit radio signals, watch weather patterns and watch enemy movements. And now they're adding one more task to their list: count penguins.

The researchers behind the count looked at emperor penguins, taking several satellite photographs of them during their breeding season. They then took those photographs and looked for penguins. And boy did they find them. The satellite counted 595,000 emperor penguins on Antarctica. That's almost twice as many as earlier counts.

The challenge in counting penguins from space is figuring out which dots are penguins, and which dots are snow. Using ground-level counts to confirm, the researchers developed an algorithm to tell the difference between snow and bird. With that they were able to count just how many feathered friends there were on the ice.

Counting birds from space has obvious advantages, especially when you're talking about penguins who live in tightly packed congregations in the middle of the ice where it's -50 degrees Celsius. In fact, it's not just the easiest way, it might be the only way. "There's literally no other way to do this," ecologist and research fellow Michelle LaRue told Scientific American. "The sea ice is way too extensive, it would be way too dangerous. I think this is probably the only cost-effective and efficient way to do it."

This counting technique could theoretically be applied to any animal that's observable from space - which means they're a different color than their background. Emperor penguins are a good example: their black backs stand out against the white snow. Seals are another animal researchers hope to count with this technology. But elsewhere it's less useful. Any animal that blends in with its surroundings will be hard to capture from so high up.

Via: Scientific American

Image: Glenn Grant, Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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