Too Many Penguins Is the Best Kind of Problem

By Elizabeth Preston | September 18, 2014 12:35 pm

hangin out

If you wish your internet procrastination breaks involved fewer weird Facebook relatives and more animal hordes, you’re in luck. The citizen-science enablers at the Zooniverse have just launched a new project called Penguin Watch. You can count penguin babies, squint at rocks, and be back to work before your coffee cools. And help scientists, if you’re into that.

The Zooniverse hosts over two dozen crowdsourced science projects. You can click and scroll through stars, craters, the ocean floor, and even old notebooks to help researchers classify data. (The project called Snapshot Serengeti has already been completed, though, probably because I did half the photos myself.)

The newest dataset comes from remote cameras that are monitoring more than 30 penguin colonies in Antarctica. To participate, users view photos and tag adult penguins, chicks, eggs, and any other animals lurking nearby. The Oxford University scientists behind the project, led by zoologist Tom Hart, say they have about 200,000 images to get through. So I jumped in.

marking birds

The click of a cursor is the closest most of us will come to petting a penguin.

The Antarctic cameras are mounted on poles and held in place by a sophisticated piece of equipment known as a “basket of rocks.” As they periodically snap away, they capture the birds arriving at their breeding sites and incubating their eggs. Sometimes there are a lot of penguins—as in, a LOT of penguins—but the program stops you after 30. If you’re a certain kind of person this might bother you.

lots of penguins

move on

“Don’t worry,” I told my husband as he looked over my shoulder at hundreds of birds standing wing-to-wing in the snow. “It lets you click a button that says there were too many to count.”

“That’s a cop-out,” he said. I think he was just goading me on because he saw what happened with Snapshot Serengeti.

too many penguins

At other times, the penguins challenge you with Where’s Waldo–esque scenes. They march in the distance along penguin-colored cliff faces. There are egg-shaped rocks and bird-shaped patches of snowmelt. Spotting an actual egg, it turns out, is close to impossible.

whereswaldo

Where’s Waldo Penguin: million-dollar children’s franchise idea.

Later in the season, adult penguins mill around with their newly hatched young. Depending on the species, penguin babies can look dramatically different. Gentoo and chinstrap chicks look like miniature adults with less well-defined markings. Adélie chicks are easier to spot because their bellies haven’t turned white yet. King penguin chicks resemble shaggy brown haystacks.

You can scroll down in Penguin Watch to find a visual guide to chicks of different species (something I wish I’d realized before getting through a few dozen pictures just by guessing which ones were chicks and which were muddy, listless adults).

chicks guide

The Oxford scientists have several goals in asking people to classify their penguin pictures. They want to know the timing of different stages in the birds’ life cycles: when do they arrive, incubate, hatch, leave? Do they ever stay at a breeding site over the winter? How many chicks are eaten by predators? And are any of these patterns shifting over time—maybe because of climate change, fishing, or other types of human disturbance?

Ultimately, the researchers also hope citizen scientists’ clicking efforts will help them train a computer to do this kind of classification instead. No matter how much we like to procrastinate, after all, we can’t watch penguins all the time.

house

Images: All taken from Penguin Watch.

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  • thesmartmom

    Let’s move a few Polar bears to Antarctica. Then we will not have to count so many penguins. 😉

  • gendotte

    Maybe Democrats in Mississippi. That should be easy

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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