‘Penguin Watch: Paying the knowledge forward…’

Dr Tom Hart and colleagues are sharing new technology and approaches to help others gather vital conservation data remotely.

PenguinCredit: Tom Hart, Penguin Watch
Understanding the impact of factors such as climate change, fishing and human activity on bird populations in remote places is essential to conservation – but it’s very challenging.

In the past, it usually required permanent scientific bases or long summer camps, which are expensive and logistically challenging. Now remote-sensing cameras and new technologies are allowing Oxford University scientists to gather vital data remotely – and they are sharing their techniques so that others can do the same.

Since 2010, Dr Tom Hart and colleagues have been hitching lifts on yachts and tour ships to sites around Antarctica, and leaving time-lapse cameras to record penguin behaviour all year round. The cameras can record the number of penguins arriving on land to breed, when breeding occurs, and chick survival. Rapid imaging can also record how long penguins spend at sea foraging for food, revealing patterns and trends in how often they feed their chicks in good and bad years.

The cameras generate up to 500,000 images a year, far too many for the scientists to analyse. Hart has therefore worked with colleagues from the Department of Physics to develop the ‘Penguin Watch’ citizen science programme, using the Zooniverse database platform. Zooniverse allows people around the world to view, click on, and count, the penguins – while engaging with seldom-visited areas. Over six million images have been classified to date, and the information has been used to develop an algorithm with collaborators in the Department of Engineering that can count penguins automatically. 

Tom Hart explains: ‘The Antarctic is changing rapidly and to be able to understand how it’s changing we need to collect data on a representative scale. The technology developed for Penguin Watch gives us vital information about numbers, feeding and breeding patterns, and how these are changing in response to threats. This data feeds into instruments such as the Antarctic Treaty and helps policy makers develop effective protection measures.’

Following the success of Penguin Watch, the team wanted to share their knowledge to help researchers monitor other species. A grant from the Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund has helped them to make their tools available to other scientists through Zooniverse. Hart and team have also worked on projects in places such as the Caribbean, Falklands, Australia, New Zealand and remote UK Islands, supplying cameras and advising on technology and data analysis. The team is currently helping Dr Catie Foley from the University of Hawaii to build ‘Seal Watch’ and Dr Douglas Clark from the University of Saskatchewan to build the ‘Three Bears Project’ in the Canadian Arctic.

Dr Hart explains: ‘The technology developed for Penguin Watch has been transformational in allowing us to track the species remotely. We wanted to ‘pay this knowledge forward’ so to speak, and set things up so that other scientists could use these approaches. The Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund – and a number of other donors – have been instrumental in enabling us to do this, and to share these important tools with the wider scientific community.’ 

Funders: Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund, John Ellerman Foundation, Quark Expeditions, Darwin Plus