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How do you count penguins from space? From their poop smears, of course

How do you count penguins from space? From their poop smears, of course


Those are some serious skidmarks

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Penguin colonies produce such prodigious quantities of poop that smears of it are visible from space. That means that scientists, with the help of NASA, can count the filthy little birds from satellite images. Since the Antarctic is so inaccessible, surveying the penguins from space could help conservation biologists monitor these populations for any troubling die-offs.

Like skidmarks on tighty whities, penguin poop smears stand out against the white, reflective snow and ice of the Antarctic. Some species are messier than others — like the Antarctic Gentoo penguins, which smear poop across their breeding sites. The dark feces most likely absorb the heat from the sun, and melt the snow beneath — creating a relatively toasty spot to build their nests. While other species in the Antarctic, like Adelie and Chinstrap penguins, may not be as handy with their bodily emissions, they still poop. And those pink or brown guano deposits have a characteristic, rounded shape when seen from above.

The technique has actually been around for awhileMichelle LaRue and her colleagues from the University of Minnesota published the first global, satellite survey of emperor penguins back in 2012. Yesterday, conservation biologist Heather Lynch spelled out her strategy to map all the populations of Antarctic penguins this way, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. Well known poop expert and tweeter-extraordinaire Anne Hilborn live-tweeted the talk, of course:

Citizen scientists can help Lynch and her collaborators at NASA and the University of Minnesota count the penguins using a Google Earth plug-in called the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics. The goal is to map and estimate population sizes — although the researchers still have to go and verify that what they’re counting as poop smears do in fact translate into penguin hangouts. Whenever this mission winds up happening, I have nose plugs, and will travel. Sign me up.