Thursday, June 04, 2009

Bird Poop in Space, Part 2

Emperor penguin colony at Halley Research StationAs we all know, bird poop is a powerful substance. Splotches of it are easily visible on pretty much any surface. Once it has dried, it is hard to clean off without a good deal of scrubbing. If left to accumulate, it can corrode a surface or become a health hazard. On at least one occasion, bird poop arrived in space when several splotches of it were stuck to the right wing of the space shuttle Discovery. In places where birds congregate, guano can accumulate in very large quantities.

These qualities make bird poop very useful for anyone seeking out bird colonies in remote areas. And, in fact, some scientists have started looking for penguin poop from space. While orbiting satellites are unable to track individual emperor penguins, they can detect the poop-stained ice that marks a breeding site.

"We were mapping one of our bases on an ice shelf, and we knew there was a penguin colony close to there," said Peter Fretwell, a geographer at the British Antarctic Survey.

"I was using a satellite image as a backdrop for the map and it happened to have a reddish-brown stain on one of the creeks that was a possible location for the emperor penguin colony."

"It was quite a lucky find because just a few months beforehand, we had made a mosaic of these satellite images of the whole of Antarctica, so we could go round and track all the colonies."
By studying satellite imagery, the team found 10 unknown colonies and 6 colonies that changed locations, while showing that another 6 that had disappeared. The research, while perhaps ignoble, provides needed information to track how climate change and other threats are affecting emperor penguins.