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Citizen Science and Penguins

Liz Clift

Peep on Penguins. For Science.

Have you heard of backyard bird counts? If so, that’s because of an initiative by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. The Great Backyard Bird Count was launched in 1998, and was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds.

Citizen-science is scientific research that is conducted partially or completely by amateur and non-professional scientists–and there are many ways to get involved.

Researchers seek help from citizen-scientists for research endeavors. To this point, citizen-scientists can contribute in a variety of ways–including monitoring a species, a newly restored habitat, or helping create a “map” of where certain species exist. Monitoring is a crucial, and often overlooked, part of the process of conservation and preservation. Utilizing citizen-scientists can be a great way for a company, corporation, or university to decrease monitoring costs while contributing to environmental and science education.

The possibilities for citizen-scientists to get involved are wide ranging.  They can participate in research on the monarch butterfly or the impact of sunflowers on pollinator gardens. Citizen-scientists can observe mushrooms or get out on a boat and photograph humpback whales. They can wander Michigan and upload sightings of amphibians and reptiles using an app, or count backyard birds. They can even count critters in the Australian outback or Antarctic penguins.

That’s right. Penguins.

A group of scientists is conducting research around Antarctic penguins. Penguins are top predators in their food chain, and changes to penguin population can represent larger changes to the Antarctic system. The scientists set up 50 cameras in hard-to-reach areas or in settings where human activity could disturb wildlife and disrupt their behavior. They hope that in addition to providing a way to monitor the penguin population, these cameras may also capture penguin behavior we haven’t seen before.

The goals of Penguin Watch are to:

  • Monitor changes in the timing of breeding populations over time, including arrival and departure dates, hatching, incubation, guard and post guard periods).
  • Compare survival of offspring between populations and analyze whether low nest survival is linked to anthropogenic or ecological factors.
  • Determine frequency of predation on chicks, the main predators and scavengers, peak timing of predation, and any large-scale predation occurrences.
  • Observe whether particular colonies spend the winter at their breeding site, and if that behavior is influenced by certain types of sea ice.

Each camera takes between 8 and 96 photos a day, each day of the year. That means that every year, there are somewhere between 2,290 and 4,800 photos to look through. The researchers currently have three years of data stored.

The pictures may contain penguins or anything else that happens to show up in the frame, including blue-eyed cormorants, boats, and researchers. Citizen-scientists count adult penguins, chicks, eggs, and “other” (any living thing, or boat, that is not a penguin).

All it takes is an internet connection and the desire to look at penguins.

And really, who doesn’t want to look at penguins?

Some pictures have no animals. Others have a bunch of penguins or other animals that live in Antarctica. Either extreme and everything in between provides useful information for researchers.

What’s it like to monitor penguins through Penguin Watch? It’s really straight forward, and when a citizen-scientist visits the site, they are presented with a very short introductory lesson that takes less than a minute to complete. After that they can start marking, or annotating, penguins. Each image includes a time and date stamp, so citizen-scientist can start observing the different behaviors (and numbers) of penguins based on the time of year. The site also includes a helpful graphic about the breeding cycle of penguins.

In a few minutes of being a citizen-scientist, I looked at one picture with no penguins, several with fewer than 30, and one picture that had easily 150 penguins. For this last one, I quickly annotated about 100 of them, using the built-in tools, which are conveniently color-coded to help you (and the researchers) quickly determine the composition of the population in the photo.

Sound intimidating? It’s really not. A citizen-scientist can stop counting when they want. When they click the button to say that they are finished counting, they are prompted to confirm whether they counted all the penguins in the picture or if there were too many to count.

Could this be more user friendly? Yes, actually, and it’s already built in! After a citizen-scientist reaches 30 individuals of any category (say, adults), the site issues a prompt that reminds the citizen-scientist they can move on to a new picture—although they can certainly keep annotating the image they are working on.

Any given citizen-scientist won’t be the only person looking at the image, so if they don’t get every penguin, that’s okay. This type of redundancy also helps validate the information provided. Additionally, after a citizen-scientist has reviewed a picture, they have the option to discuss it with other citizen-scientists (if they’re signed in, that is). This provides a valuable collaboration and learning opportunity for participants and may provide researchers with more insights as well. Citizen-scientists can also visit the FAQ page to learn more about the project, and the penguins – and participate in the FAQ section as well, if they register with the site (registration is not necessary to participate in penguin counting).

This project is also working with innovative technology. The researchers are collaborating with the Computer Vision laboratory at the University of Oxford to develop a recognition tool that will allow computers to automatically count each penguin. Each annotation made by a citizen-scientist helps train the program to recognize individual penguins (or, eventually, other species).

If you’ve participated in a citizen-science project, or if you’ve worked with citizen-scientists, we want to hear from you! Leave a comment about the experience on our Facebook page or Tweet us.

penguin watch

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