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Scientists track seabirds from space

Edinburgh scientists have helped show how Antarctic seabird excrement can be seen in satellite images of bird colonies.

Their discovery could help researchers remotely pinpoint and track colonies of seabirds, including species at risk.

Bird colonies

By studying the colour of seabird droppings, known as guano, in the infra red part of the light spectrum, researchers were able to identify its unique spectral signature and tell it apart from bare rocks and snow. Applying this to satellite imagery, the team from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh was able to identify all known major colonies of Adelié penguins.

They could also spot seabirds including Antarctic shags, snow petrels, southern giant petrels and skuas, among others.

The tool also allowed scientists to locate a number of potential new colony sites.

Remote tracking

Scientists say the method could be transferable to other parts of the world where remoteness and access restrict researchers’ knowledge of the distribution and abundance of bird colonies.

The guano’s unique signature was collected from studying data from satellites and from hand-held spectrometers on the ground.

According to the Red List index compiled by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) the conservation status of sea birds has deteriorated more rapidly than any other species group since 1988.

Threatened species

Some 28 per cent of seabird species are currently listed as threatened, of which five per cent are considered to be critically endangered.

The study is published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.