Scientists Need Your Help Looking at Pictures of Lovable Penguins

April 11, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

antarctic Penguins
Photo credit: Penguin Watch/Facebook

Yes, we are serious.

This is one of the best things I have heard in awhile! British scientists have set up a network of penguin-monitoring cameras in Antarctica, and they are asking the public to help them carry out their research on how climate change is affecting these cute, flightless birds.

The team, out of Oxford University in the UK, launched a new project on Thursday (April 7) called PenguinWatch 2.0, and it is the largest Antarctica citizen science venture in the world. The researchers set up a series of 75 cameras near penguin territories in Antarctica and surrounding islands to figure out what is happening to local populations.

Their monitoring network, which includes a collaboration with a penguin census that has been operated by the US organization Oceanites since 1994, has already shown a link between climate change and a decline in Adélie and Chinstrap penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula.

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However, there are a growing number of pressures on the animals, and researchers need more data to understand them. The team will analyze climate, pollution, and fisheries research, and combine it with the results from PenguinWatch 2.0 to look for any patterns in what’s affecting populations.

But with this large network in place, and each camera taking a picture every hour throughout the year, the researchers now have a backlog of hundreds of thousands of images they have yet to analyze.

“We can't do this work on our own, and every penguin that people click on and count on the website — that's all information that tells us what's happening at each nest, and what's happening over time,” lead researcher Dr. Hart told BBC News.

In PenguinWatch 2.0, people will be able to see the results of their online efforts to monitor and conserve Antarctica’s penguin colonies. Hart is also encouraging school groups to adopt their own colony — they can follow and monitor its progress and learn “about Antarctica along the way.”

The project is not just important for protecting penguins — it will also help scientists figure out more about what’s happening to Antarctica as a whole since penguins are thought of as the “canary in the coal mine” for the continent.

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“As top predators, penguins are considered sentinels of changes within their ecosystem,” the PenguinWatch 2.0 website explains. “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.”

During the project, you will be looking at images of Adélie, Chinstrap, Gentoo, King, and Rockhopper penguins.

It is really simple to get started: All you need to do it log on, look at photos, and identify adult penguins, chicks, and eggs in each image. Each photo requires only a few clicks to identify, and you can chat about your results in the website's “Discuss” page with other volunteers. You can also check out their Facebook page.

So what are you waiting for? Penguins need you!

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