Help Scientists By Marking Penguins In Pictures

Zooniverse Penguin Watch

Check out this latest citizen-science project. It’s a site where you can look at photos gathered by an Antarctic network of wildlife cameras and mark if there are penguins in the photos. In other words you get to look at cute animals online and help environmental science! Sounds like a win-win to me.

A warning: When I went to try the site, the first photo I got showed an overwhelming number of penguins. After all, penguins often huddle together in large groups. But don’t give up! The site will let you move on from a photo whenever you wish. It will even prompt you to move on after you mark 30 penguins in one photo. Just mark the picture as unfinished, and the site for further tagging.

The photos come from 50 cameras that Antarctic scientists set up in areas away from human camps. Penguin populations in those areas are less well studied than the ones that happen to hang out near people. Scientists want to find how these populations are doing now, answering questions such as, “How many are there?” and “What percentage of chicks make it to adulthood?” (You mark eggs and chicks as well as adult penguins. Double cute.) It even seems possible that volunteers may eventually run into photos of adults and chicks getting injured or killed by predators, although all the photos I saw showed resting adults.

From these data, scientists may determine whether factors such as proximity to people and boats affect penguin health. In the future, this data will help them determine whether global warming affects penguin populations.

The research team, including penguin biologists and computer scientists from the U.K. and Australia, took to the Internet because the camera network simply generates too many photos for the team to classify on its own. Each camera takes between eight and 96 photos per day.

In the future, researchers hope they won’t even need online volunteers to process their penguin data. Each volunteer’s annotated photo goes toward a training set for a computer program that’s able to learn from examples. The team hopes that with enough examples, the program will eventually be able to recognize penguin adults, chicks and eggs on its own. So yes, click by click, you’re rendering yourself obsolete as a penguin-spotter. Better get in while the going is good.

Zooniverse Penguin Watch