Good news following a massive breeding failure of emperor penguins: There are 20% more colonies in Antarctica than previously known. They were discovered thanks to patches of penguin poop so large they could be seen from space. The red-brown guano left behind on ice, captured in high-resolution images from a new satellite, reveal eight previously unknown emperor penguin colonies and confirm the existence of three others that haven't been seen in decades. Unusually, two are far from the coast on sea ice anchored to grounded icebergs—"a location never seen before," per the Guardian. This adds to 50 previously identified colonies. As each new colony is thought to include a few hundred emperor penguins, researchers estimate a 5% to 10% increase in the total known population, estimated at 500,000.
Now for the bad news: "The new breeding sites are all in locations where recent model projections suggest emperor penguins will decline," Philip Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey tells the Guardian. A study published in November predicted an 86% decline in the population by 2100 unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. After all, emperor penguins, the only penguins to breed on sea ice, require stable ice for about nine months of the year, per the BBC. Trathan refers to the penguins as "canaries in the coal mine" amid a warming of the continent. Still, "in every gap where we thought there might be a colony, we found one," says research leader Peter Fretwell, also of BAS. They were also found in unexpected spots, like some 112 miles from the continent, leaving scientists "disbelieving," Fretwell says. The next step is to count the birds with better cameras. (Read more penguins stories.)