Camera traps and thousands of baby penguins ... yep, we'd say it's the perfect recipe for a productivity Armageddon. But Penguin Watchers, a new citizen science project from Zooniverse, has finally given us a guilt-free way to peruse camera trap photos: by turning animal-cam watching into a way to help scientists!

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'Penguin watchers' are tasked with marking adult penguins, chicks, and eggs. Image: Zooniverse

By deploying 50 cameras throughout the Southern Ocean and along the Antarctic Peninsula, researchers from Penguin Lifeline hope to gain a better understanding of how a changing polar environment is affecting penguin populations. 

"As top predators, penguins are considered sentinels of changes within their ecosystem," they explain. "Because penguins spend the majority of their life in water and fall at the top of the food chain, any variations in their populations may represent larger changes to the dynamic Antarctic ecosystem."

"Along with the infinite possibilities of cameras as a monitoring tool comes an enormous amount of data in the form of hundreds of thousands of images," they add.

Each of the team's 50 cameras takes up to 96 images daily ... and they've been running for three years (for the number-crunchers out there, that equates to over one million images per year). In order to turn this massive penguin family photo album into something usable, each photograph must be checked for adult penguins, penguin chicks and eggs ... and that is where you come in.

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Map showing camera trap locations. Image: Zooniverse/Penguin Lifeline

By signing up as an 'articifial ecologist' (aka penguin-counter extraordinaire) you can help speed this process along by playing a bit of 'Where's Waldo?' – penguin style. Annotating the photographs is fun, easy and a great way to help conservation efforts if you don't have funds to donate. Your notations will help penguinologists (yes ... penguinologists!) answer important questions about penguin breeding, and will help 'train' a computer to recognise penguin patterns in the future. 

"Ultimately, we hope that our research can directly feed into policy as we build evidence to determine important regions for penguins," says Penguin Lifeline. "There is growing support for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) at our study areas, which would protect penguins by restricting fisheries activities, but we must first fill in gaps in our understanding of the species distributions and behaviours."

Sign up and start 'penguin watching' here!

Top header image: Liam Quinn, Flickr