Wildlife from Space

Wildlife from Space

Many populations of wildlife are remote, inaccessible or difficult to monitor. The advent of sub-metre, Very-High-Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery may enable us study these animals in a much more efficient way.

Over the past decade, BAS scientists have led investigations using satellite technology to identify, count and monitor different species in Antarctica and elsewhere. We have tested the capability of new satellites, applied bespoke methods to different species and developed automated counting techniques using Artificial Intelligence. These innovative developments have led to breakthroughs in the understanding of distribution and population trends, and increased uptake of the new technology by many other institutions and academics.

The main groups of animals on which we have focussed are:

Walrus from Space

Walrus are facing the reality of the climate crisis and we need to know more about how they are affected. British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) are asking the public to become ‘walrus detectives’ and help contribute to conservation science by searching for walrus in the thousands of satellite images taken from space.

Example of a satellite image of an Atlantic walrus haul-out. From space they look like small or large groups of reddish or pale brown shapes that can be next to each other or a few meters away. This satellite image is 1.87 km². On the Walrus from Space platform (the Geohive app) users will view images cropped to 0.04 km². Satellite imagery © 2021 Maxar Technologies

Over 5 years the project, which is in cooperation with scientists around the Arctic, aims to carry out the first ever whole population census of Atlantic and Laptev walrus using satellite imagery and explore what might happen to them in the context of rapid climate change. This will help scientists to better understand the impact of climate change on populations of this iconic species and help safeguard their future. Sign up to take part here.

A herd of walruses on an ice floe
A herd of walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) on an ice floe. Svalbard, Norway. Image © 2018 Richard Barrett


In the remote and inhospitable landscape around the Antarctic coastline, penguins can be challenging to monitor. For a decade, BAS has been locating, counting and studying colonies of emperor penguins to investigate the effects of climate change using vVHR satellite imagery. This work included the first global survey of a species from space (2012) and the discovery of many new breeding colonies. Since 2013, BAS has colaborated with WWF to monitor emperor colonies in a sector between 0° and 90°E.  This includes sixteen breeding sites.  Some of these have experienced dramatic changes in population sizes over time.

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) on sea ice at the Brunt ice shelf.
Satellite imagery showing the reduction in size of the Halley Bay colony in 2018 compared with 2015

We have also used satellites to locate colonies and determine population trends of the smaller Pygoscelis penguins, such as chinstrap, Adélie and gentoo penguins. We used the unique spectral signature of guano to identify the breeding sites. Interestingly, the guano changes colour over the season, so as different species breed at different times we can tell the species by the colour of the guano at the time of the imagery.


Many whale species were brought to the verge of extinction in the age of commercial whaling, but since then some populations have started to recover. These species still face many threats, including ship strikes, pollution, entanglement and disease. Populations are difficult to assess by traditional means so BAS has led the study of baleen whales by satellite, a technology that could revolutionize how we monitor these animals.

A pod of southern right whales

We have tested the applicability of VHR satellites to identify and count several species (including humpback, sei, blue, southern right, grey and fin whales), analysed their reflectance (how easy they are to detect), developed automated counting techniques and examined how to convert satellite counts to abundance estimates. We have also investigated the use of satellites to identify and count stranded whales. Our research has led to the International Whaling Commission recommending a number of locations around the globe where use of the technology should be prioritized.


The sea ice that surrounds Antarctica is home to several species of seal that depend on it throughout their lives for resting, breeding, protection against predators and access to food.  The vast size and dynamic nature of  this frozen sea makes counting these seals incredibly challenging so that at present know little about how many there are and how their populations are coping with challenges such as climate change. We need to understand more about these seals as they are very important to the Antarctic Ecosystem. For example, crabeater seals are the most numerous seal in the world but at present we can only estimate their abundance as somewhere between 7 and 75 million individuals. Given they eat around 20kg of krill a day they have a large impact on the foodweb. Weddell seals, the second most abundant seal, like to live deep within the sea ice close to the Antarctic Continent making them very difficult and expensive to access and count.

Crabeater seals on an iceberg, taken on a boat trip from Rothera Research Station.

As part of the international Censusing Animal Populations from Space project, BAS is using VHR satellite images to study these ice seals. We are developing new methods to automatically detect and count seals, and classify the different environments they live in, including automated counting using machine learning and Artificial Intelligence combined with thermal imaging and spectral analysis.


The great (Diomedea) albatrosses are the largest flying birds on Earth and they live on remote, inaccessible islands around the Southern Ocean. These charismatic birds face a number of threats including incidental mortality (bycatch) from longline fishing, invasive species, disease and habitat destruction.

A pair of Wandering albatrosses displaying during a courtship ritual at a study site on Bird Island, South Georgia. British Antarctic Survey scientists have confirmed a steady decline in the albatross population on Bird Island, probably as a result of drowning when their beaks catch on baited fish hooks.

All of the great albatross species are threatened with extinction (https://www.iucn.org/) so monitoring their populations is critical. Survey of their remote breeding sites is difficult, so we are developing methods to automatically count and census albatrosses using VHR satellite imagery. In 2014, we conducted the first census of a whole population by satellite, when we counted all colonies of northern royal albatrosses in a single breeding season.



  • Combine the expertise remote sensing expertise of the Mapping and Geographic Information Centre (MAGIC) with the BAS Ecosystems team to deliver innovative, impactful and world-leading science outputs
  • To provide innovative world-leading solutions to provide answers and advice to key conservation questions for policy-makers, government and international stakeholders on wildlife populations using remote sensing methods
  • To develop techniques and methods that facilitate the finding, monitoring and understanding of polar wildlife and, where appropriate, to transfer this knowledge to other similar challenges globally

Information gained from these remote approaches help inform international initiatives such as the IUCN Red List assessments of threat status for polar wildlife.


A man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera.

Jaume Forcada

Marine Mammal Scientist

Ecosystems team

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Peter Fretwell

Geographic Information Officer

Mapping and GIS team

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Jennifer Jackson

Molecular Ecologist/Whale biologist

Ecosystems team

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Richard Phillips

Seabird Ecologist, Deputy Science Leader, IMP 3

Ecosystems team

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Hannah Cubaynes

Wildlife from Space Research Associate

BAS-Arctic Working Group, Ecosystems team

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Connor Bamford

Marine Ecologist

Ecosystems team

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Holly Houliston

PhD Student

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Penny Clarke

PhD Student Pelagic Ecosystems

Ecosystems team

New emperor penguin colony discovered

20 January, 2023

Scientists have discovered a new emperor penguin colony in Antarctica using satellite mapping technology. This new colony makes a total of 62 known emperor penguin colonies around the coastline of …

Albatrosses from space: wildlife detectives needed!

4 September, 2022

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and RSPB are recruiting albatross detectives to help to search for wandering albatrosses in satellite images taken from space. This is to help us learn more …

Whale images aid crucial research

8 June, 2022

A new dataset featuring hundreds of satellite images of whales has been published to support the development of artificial intelligence systems which will aid crucial conservation work.

Using AI to track whales from space

4 February, 2021

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists will work with an Artificial Intelligence company after being awarded a contract from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to support the protection of an endangered …

Scientists discover new penguin colonies from space

5 August, 2020

A new study using satellite mapping technology reveals there are nearly 20% more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than was previously thought. The results provide an important benchmark for monitoring …

Monitoring whales from space

31 July, 2020

Scientists have found that studying high-resolution images of whales from space is a feasible way to estimate their populations. A team, led by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), compared satellite images …

Return of the whales to South Georgia

20 February, 2020

A team led by British Antarctic Survey has just returned from the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, as the last of three expeditions to investigate the recovery of whales a …

Watching whales from space

1 November, 2018

Scientists have used detailed high-resolution satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies’ DigitalGlobe, to detect, count and describe four different species of whales. Reported this week in the journal Marine Mammal …

NEWS STORY: Satellites spot seabird poo!

11 December, 2014

Seabird poo has unique spectral signature visible from satellite images Scientists have discovered that penguin and seabird poo (guano) from colonies around the Antarctic Peninsula has a unique spectral signature …

NEWS STORY: Emperor Penguins’ adaptation skills

24 June, 2014

New research using satellite images reveals that emperor penguins are more willing to relocate than previously thought A new study led by the University of Minnesota offers new insights on …

PRESS RELEASE: Satellites identify whales

12 February, 2014

Satellites help spot whales Scientists have demonstrated how new satellite technology can be used to count whales, and ultimately estimate their population size. Using Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery, …

PRESS RELEASE: Antarctic emperor penguins

8 January, 2014

Antarctic emperor penguins may be adapting to warmer temperatures A new study of four Antarctic emperor penguin colonies suggest that unexpected breeding behaviour may be a sign that the birds …

PRESS RELEASE: Penguins surveyed from space

13 April, 2012

Scientists count penguins from space A new study using satellite mapping technology reveals there are twice as many emperor penguins in Antarctica than was previously thought. The results provide an …

First Recorded Loss of an Emperor Penguin Colony

10 March, 2011

Scientists at British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have recently described the loss of a small colony of emperor penguins on an island off the West Antarctic Peninsula. The loss is attributed …

King Edward Point Research Station

King Edward Point is primarily a marine and  fisheries research station.   Owned by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) and operated by British Antarctic Survey …

Bird Island Research Station

Bird Island Research Station is an important centre for research into bird and seal biology. Lying off the north-west tip of South Georgia, Bird Island is one of the richest …