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Views of poo from space reveal previously undiscovered emperor penguin colonies

From space, scientists have discovered 11 new emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica - by spotting their poo.

Emperor penguins, found only in Antarctica, are the tallest and heaviest penguin species, growing up to 122cm tall and weighing between 22kg and 45kg. Source: istock.com

According to the research published by the British Antarctic Survey today, there are nearly 20 per cent more emperor colonies on the remote continent than previously thought.

Snaps from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite show dark smudges on the otherwise pristine Antarctic ice.

The smudges are large amounts of guano - penguin poop.

However, the 11 colonies are all fairly small, increasing the overall population by around five to 10 per cent, the researchers say. 

New Zealand's Dr Michelle LaRue, from the University of Canterbury, uses similar high-resolution satellite mapping techniques for her own Antarctic studies and was one of the reviewers for the paper.

Guano marking a previously undiscovered penguin colony at Cape Gates, Antarctica. Source: Supplied

"These are really important discoveries and it really drives home that we need to get back to Antarctica in order to verify what we're seeing from space," she told 1 NEWS.

One of the newly discovered colonies is around 800km away from the New Zealand-operated Scott Base, at the very edge of the Ross Sea territory.

"I personally would be really interested, if it's at all possible, to take an aerial survey flight up there to verify and to check it out," Dr LaRue says.

Meanwhile, another colony has been discovered "seemingly in the middle of the ocean", a far cry from where the emperors usually live.

Dr LaRue says it shows they still have a lot to learn about penguin biology and behaviour.

"Now it raises questions for why? Why are they there? I wouldn't think that would be a very good spot to be, because you're exposed to a lot of wind and the ice out there is presumably still pack ice," she says.

Guano marking a previously undiscovered penguin colony at Yule Bay, Antarctica. Source: Supplied

In total, it's estimated there are around half a million penguins alive. That could be put at risk by climate change.

"The likelihood is that these penguin colonies are going to decrease," Dr LaRue says.

"A paper last year shows that if we don't hit the Paris Accord goals, we're going to lose upwards of 80 per cent of emperor penguins by 2100."

Dr Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey, says these birds could be the "canaries in the coalmine".

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"Whilst it's good news that we've found these new colonies, the breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperors will decline," he said in a statement.

"We need to watch these sites carefully as climate change will affect this region."

The new discoveries mean there are now 61 known emperor penguin colonies around Antarctica, according to the British Antarctic Survey.

The research was published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation yesterday, led by scientists working with the British Antarctic Survey.