It may not be as difficult as determining an accurate count of human beings in the U.S., but being responsible for counting the number of emperor penguins in the world is no walk in the Antarctic, either.
In a study published last week, British Antarctic Survey scientists counted 61 emperor penguin colonies around the world's southernmost continent – 11 more than previously known.
While considered the gold standard for getting the most accurate census, the survey of the giant marine birds – who can grow to about 4 feet in height and don't fly – doesn't require scientists to physically go colony-by-colony around Antarctica, where Frank Jordans, of the Associated Press, reports the birds breed in “remote areas where temperatures can drop as low as ... minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Instead, he said, “scientists used images from Europe's Sentinel-2 satellite mission to look for smudges on the ice that indicated large amounts of guano.” For those unfamiliar with the word, that would be penguin poop.
The study's lead author cautioned the newly discovered colonies were small, likely boosting the emperor population count to about half a million birds or “around 265,500-278,500 breeding pairs,” Jordans reported.
Unchecked, global warming is expected to significantly reduce the number of emperor penguins and, with it, the amount of penguin poop you can see from space. In this case, that is a sad tradeoff.