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NASA, MBIE support for spotting emperor penguins from space

03 April 2024

UC Antarctic scientist Dr Michelle LaRue is leading research into emperor penguins using satellite remote sensing technologies with support from MBIE and NASA.


By working with NASA, her team will have access to state-of-the-art technology and expertise to develop the research and build partnerships with a world leader in space research.

University of Canterbury Associate Professor Michelle LaRue describes her research project: “Emperor penguins are an Antarctic icon, but we know very little about them during the most important part of their lives: when they are raising their chicks during harsh Antarctic winters. How many birds arrive to breed, and when? How many birds are in the all-male huddles in the middle of June each year? Can we detect the shift from male incubation to female guarding? Finally, when do the huddles begin to break up and are those behaviours connected to environmental factors such as wind or temperature?

“We aim to answer these questions and lift the shroud of mystery around emperor penguins using satellite remote sensing technologies (specifically, synthetic aperture radar) that allow researchers to essentially ‘see in the dark’.

“Our goal is to leverage satellite images of emperor penguin colonies around the Ross Sea, the largest marine protected area in the world, and figure out how to detect and numerate emperor penguins in those images. We will develop and train machine learning algorithms to identify and count emperor penguins at known breeding grounds, with the long-term goals of automatically quantifying emperor penguin populations in future SAR imagery and detecting henceforth unknown colonies around the continent.

“Our work will generate new information that enhances our knowledge of emperor penguins, an important bird in the Antarctic ecosystem, at a critical juncture in their lifecycle and create new ability to monitor their population dynamics.”

Based at the University of Canterbury’s Gateway Antarctica, her research team is one of 12 New Zealand teams that will conduct joint six-month feasibility studies looking at Earth observation research with US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) partners.

Research teams have lift-off for Earth observation projects

The 12 research teams will conduct feasibility studies in the areas of environmental monitoring, water and climate modelling, natural hazards, and biodiversity. Teams will have access to state-of-the art technology and NASA expertise to develop their research and build partnerships with a world leader in space research. Research teams will receive for up to $75,000 for the six-month Earth observation feasibility studies which is part of the Government’s Catalyst Fund’s $9 million allocation for international research partnerships with NASA. A total of $6.5 million has been allocated specifically for Earth observation projects. 

The Catalyst Fund supports activities that initiate, develop and foster collaborations which take advantage of international science and innovation for New Zealand’s benefit. Completed feasibility studies will be considered jointly by MBIE and NASA against the assessment criteria used for the call for proposals for second stage funding.
Information about the successful proposals: New Zealand – NASA Partnerships Funded Projects

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