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, 7 (4), e33751

An Emperor Penguin Population Estimate: The First Global, Synoptic Survey of a Species From Space


An Emperor Penguin Population Estimate: The First Global, Synoptic Survey of a Species From Space

Peter T Fretwell et al. PLoS One.

Erratum in

  • PLoS One. 2012;7(4): doi/10.1371/annotation/32c246eb-3b73-4410-a44c-b41ddae11fc5


Our aim was to estimate the population of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes fosteri) using a single synoptic survey. We examined the whole continental coastline of Antarctica using a combination of medium resolution and Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery to identify emperor penguin colony locations. Where colonies were identified, VHR imagery was obtained in the 2009 breeding season. The remotely-sensed images were then analysed using a supervised classification method to separate penguins from snow, shadow and guano. Actual counts of penguins from eleven ground truthing sites were used to convert these classified areas into numbers of penguins using a robust regression algorithm.We found four new colonies and confirmed the location of three previously suspected sites giving a total number of emperor penguin breeding colonies of 46. We estimated the breeding population of emperor penguins at each colony during 2009 and provide a population estimate of ~238,000 breeding pairs (compared with the last previously published count of 135,000-175,000 pairs). Based on published values of the relationship between breeders and non-breeders, this translates to a total population of ~595,000 adult birds.There is a growing consensus in the literature that global and regional emperor penguin populations will be affected by changing climate, a driver thought to be critical to their future survival. However, a complete understanding is severely limited by the lack of detailed knowledge about much of their ecology, and importantly a poor understanding of their total breeding population. To address the second of these issues, our work now provides a comprehensive estimate of the total breeding population that can be used in future population models and will provide a baseline for long-term research.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Example of imagery used in analysis.
A: Multispectral QuickBird image of the emperor penguin colony at Windy Creek, Halley Bay, Antarctica. Black box indicates the area of images B–E below. B: Detail of multispectral image showing area of penguins as black/grey pixels and guano in brown. Although there is good differentiation between penguins and guano the coarse resolution of the multispectral image (2.54 m cell size) means that individual penguins cannot be identified and limits the usefulness of the image. C: Detail of the panchromatic band of the corresponding QuickBird image. The higher resolution (61 cm) gives better detail of the penguin area, but many of the penguin pixels have the same value as the areas of guano and therefore are difficult to separate using a classification index. D: Detail of the corresponding pansharpened QuickBird image. A histogram stretch has been used to maximize the difference between penguins and guano. Using this method the image retains the detail of the panchromatic image while keeping the colour differentiation of the multispectral image. E: Results from the supervised classification analysis of the pansharpened QuickBird image with the area classified as penguins shown in red.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Regression plot based on the eleven ground truthing sites.
The slope of the regression was 0.933 (SE = 0.046). Ground truth sites: Co6. Coulman Island 2006, Co5. Coulman Island 2005, Wa6. Cape Washington 2006, Wa5. Cape Washington 2005, Am. Amanda Bay 2009, Sm. Smith Peninsula 2009, Fr. Franklin Island 2005, Be6. Beaufort Island 2006, Be5. Beaufort Island 2005, Cr. Cape Crozier 2005.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Distribution of emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, see Table 1 for details of each colony.
Red dots refer to those colonies with no previous population estimates.

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