Scientists Take First-Ever Penguin Census — from Space

How many emperor penguins can you count from space? A lot.

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Reuters

Forget seeing the Great Wall of China from space. (It isn’t actually visible using only the naked eye, anyway.) Scientists have taken what is being called the “first-ever penguin census” using satellite technology.

Using photos from 2009, scientists examined several images taken by privately-owned satellites in space to tally the number of emperor penguins in the Antarctic tundra. Then by using a technique called pansharpening, the penguin-counting team was further able “to differentiate between penguin poop, ice, and the birds themselves.”

(PHOTOS: Global Warming Threatens Penguins)

There’s good news, too:  the images reveal that there are twice as many emperor penguins in Antarctica than previously thought. Previous estimates placed the population at around 300,000 animals in 1992, but the new findings peg the population somewhere around 595,000, nearly double from two decades ago. Because the bird is only found in Antarctica (which isn’t the friendliest environment to humans), the species is notoriously difficult to study.

Thanks to the good news, some members of the team are hoping to apply the technology to survey other Antarctic populations, like Weddell seals and Adélie penguins.

The study’s co-author, Michelle LaRue, didn’t believe it at first. “I didn’t believe that they were actually penguins,” she told National Geographic. “[When] you see it again and again… there’s nothing else it could be.”

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Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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