Penguins may be among the most beloved of marine birds, but they're also among the hardest to study. Now, an important new technology is being deployed to change that: camera traps. Thanks to thousands of penguin photos and a helping hand from citizen scientists, researchers are learning more about Antarctica's iconic birds, including the ice-melting power of their poop!
Antarctica is a forbidding place: the cold winter and demanding living conditions make it challenging for scientists to keep their eyes on the tuxedo-clad waddlers. Reaching penguin colonies at the start and end of the birds' breeding season is difficult – which means this critical phase of a penguin's life is still not well understood. That's also why data from the complete breeding cycle has been acquired only at a few more easily accessible sites.
But researchers are now poised to observe penguins throughout the breeding season, even in the most inaccessible of locations – by deploying a series of cameras programmed to snap photos at set intervals. They've even positioned one at Point Wild, the spot where 22 men from the Shackleton Expedition lived for more than four months in 1916 after surviving a wreck.
Continuously monitoring the birds is important because the challenges different penguin species face depend a lot on where they live. Even different colonies within the same species experience different sorts of threats depending on where they make their homes. Some are at risk from climate change, others from competition with fisheries, and still others have to contend with direct human disturbance, such as those situated near research stations or in spots accessed by the tourism industry. In other places, groups of penguins appear to thrive.
So what leads some to suffer and others to survive? "Time-lapse cameras have revolutionised our ability to collect data from a large number of sites simultaneously. Having many more sites monitored and comparing high- versus low-fished sites, for example, will enable us to work out which of these threats are causing changes to penguin populations and how we might mitigate them," says Oxford University zoologist Tom Hart.
Hart and his colleagues started deploying their cameras in 2014, but they were soon faced with a problem: there were just too many photos for the team to analyse. Together with the Australian Antarctic Division, Hart and his Oxford University colleagues founded a citizen science programme called Penguin Watch. Interested folks can log on and scrutinise photos for any information the researchers might be looking for. So far, more than 1.5 million people have volunteered their time to help the Penguin Watch researchers analyse some 175,000 penguin photos.
And they've learned quite a bit already.
Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua), for example, seem to rely on their own poop to create an adequate nesting space. The handsome-looking birds, identifiable thanks to the white bonnet-like stripes across their heads, huddle together on their rocky breeding sites before the breeding season really gets going. There, they do what they do best: digest their fishy food and poop out the leftovers.
Because the dark-coloured penguin poop absorbs more light and heat than bare ice, pooped-on areas thaw faster than they otherwise would, exposing the rocks below. This creates the perfect platform for a penguin nursery, where the birds eventually deposit their eggs.
In the video above, watch an entire year pass at the Cuverville Island gentoo penguin colony near the Antarctic Peninsula, and notice that the poop-covered ice melts both sooner and faster than the rest.
Penguin Watch is now gearing up to release another half a million photos for eager citizen scientists to pore over. Hart hopes to use the new data to learn how often parents have to feed their newly hatched chicks and how much time they spend foraging in the ocean while their chicks remain on land. By continuing to develop this non-invasive method of animal observation, he hopes to eventually "track penguins across the whole of the Southern Ocean without researchers needing to disturb them."
To participate in Penguin Watch, go to http://www.penguinwatch.org/ and sign up. For every ten photos you look over (up to once per day), you'll be entered into a contest to win a spot on a cruise to Antarctica!