Using high-resolution satellite mapping technology, the researchers determined there are twice as many emperor penguins in Antarctica than previously thought, in what they said was the first-ever count of an entire species from space.
Scientists from the University of Minnesota Polar Geospatial Center, working with partners from the British Antarctic Survey, used the satellite imagery to differentiate between birds, ice, shadow and penguin guano.
They then used ground counts and aerial photography to confirm their analysis of the numbers of emperor penguins, which are difficult to count or study because they breed in areas that are very remote and often inaccessible with temperatures as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The methods we used are an enormous step forward in antarctic ecology because we can conduct research safely and efficiently with little environmental impact, and determine estimates of an entire penguin population," Minnesota researcher Michelle LaRue said in a university release.
British Antarctic Survey biologist Phil Trathan said the research was important to monitor the affects of climate change.
"Current research suggests that emperor penguin colonies will be seriously affected by climate change," Trathan said. "An accurate continent-wide census that can be easily repeated on a regular basis will help us monitor more accurately the impacts of future change on this iconic species."