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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Information gained from these remote approaches help inform international initiatives such as the IUCN Red List assessments of threat status for polar wildlife.
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 …
25 April, 2019
Researchers at British Antarctic Survey have discovered “catastrophic” breeding failure at one of world’s largest emperor penguin colonies.
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 …
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 …
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 …
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, …
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 …
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 …
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 …