Scientists need help to pinpoint penguins

PenguinWatch is a new citizen-science project that lets you find penguins from the comfort of your computer


This is one of the pictures viewers might see as they ID penguins using the new app. The data from these pictures will be used to help conserve populations of these important predators.

Penguins are a favorite at zoos and aquariums. We love to watch them dart in the water and waddle on land. Now, a new citizen-science project asks you to scout for these birds in their natural habitat — the icy shores of Antarctica. But there’s no need to get cold feet. In fact, you can do it from home.

The project is called PenguinWatch. And it needs citizen scientists — ordinary people who love science — to scout for penguins in pictures.

Penguin populations in Antarctica could be under threat from human impacts, including fishing and climate change. But scientists don’t know how many penguins are really out on the ice or how they spend their time. “We want to learn things like when they turn up to breed and how long it takes to raise a chick,” explains Thomas Hart. He is one of the minds behind PenguinWatch. A self-titled “penguinologist,” Hart runs a conservation and ecology laboratory at the University of Oxford in England.

To get a mountain of penguin information, his team has set up more than 50 cameras at likely penguin breeding grounds — called rookeries — all over Antarctica. A second group, the Australian Antarctic Division, in Kingston, has set up another 40 cameras. They’ll be spying on five different species: the gentoo, rockhopper, chinstrap, Adélie and king penguins.

These cameras sit atop long metal poles, the type used to make scaffolding for buildings. Bags of rocks anchor them so that icy winds don’t blow them away. Each camera is set to take between eight and 96 photos per day for an entire year. Penguins will not be at the sites all of that time. But when they are, those cameras will capture their comings and goings. Every year, teams of scientists go back to Antarctica to retrieve the previous year’s photos. For some sites, four years of photos now exist.

The researchers have so far amassed around 200,000 photos. Some show penguins. But others don’t. Each photo needs to be reviewed to note whether it’s captured some birds — and if so, how many. Scientists also want tallies of any eggs and penguin chicks.

Eventually, the scientists hope that a computer program can take over this bird-counting task. Using previously labeled photos, a computer program can train a computer to recognize what a penguin’s image looks like. To make this work, the program needs to have examples — many, many examples — of photos where penguins have already been identified. So for now, the scientists need help sifting through every image for signs of the birds.

On the PenguinWatch website, viewers click through photos. A box on the right of the computer screen asks whether penguins are present. When they are, the viewer can click on each animal to mark it. Different colored marks identify adults, chicks and eggs. A bar below the photos helps the viewer to distinguish each species and tell the difference between a big chick and an adult bird.

When the rookeries are full, some photos can look like a penguin traffic jam. In these cases, the program asks a viewer to mark just the first 30 or so penguins seen. The end goal, Hart says, is to have many people classify each photo. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he says. “But if multiple people see the same image, and they all mark different animals, we can combine the measurements to get an accurate number of penguins.”

The results will help in training computers to spot and identify penguins. But the data have more immediate uses as well. Findings from PenguinWatch can highlight impacts that fishing — threatening the types of food available to the penguins — and climate change might have on these tuxedoed swimmers. “Penguins are top predators in their environment,” says Caitlin Black. She studies animal behavior at Oxford and is part of PenguinWatch. “You can tell a lot about what changes are taking place in the environment by monitoring them,” she says. She hopes that new understanding of whether and how the birds’ populations are changing might help scientists to design effective programs to protect penguins.

PenguinWatch has plenty of pictures available for classification. The research team is heading back to Antarctica soon to collect more. You can follow along with Black, Hart and the rest of the team’s travels and research on their blog.

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Power Words

Antarctica  A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.

app  Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

behavior  The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

citizen science  Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” collect helps to advance research. Letting the public participate means that scientists can get data from many more people and places than would be available if they were working alone.

conservation  The act of preserving or protecting the natural environment.

climate change  Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

ecology  A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

ecosystem  A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

predator  (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

rookery  A place where birds or animals, such as penguins and seals, nest or breed. The term stems from the word “rook,” which is an ancient bird that looks like the North American crow and nests in colonies near the tops of trees.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.