More than 1.5 million volunteers from around the world have counted penguins in 175,000 online images in a unique citizen science project called Penguin Watch revealing some surprising facts.

Adélie penguins breed on the Antarctic continent while emperor penguins use the permanent fast ice around the continent to breed. Photo: Katja Riedel
Adélie penguins breed on the Antarctic continent while emperor penguins use the permanent fast ice around the continent to breed. Photo: Katja Riedel

More than 1.5 million volunteers from around the world have counted penguins in 175,000 online images so far in the unique citizen science project, Penguin Watch. Launched in 2014, Penguin Watch, led by Oxford University scientists with input from the Australian Antarctic Division, asked the public to go online and count penguins in images taken by remote cameras monitoring nearly 100 colonies in Antarctica. The results are helping scientists to discover what penguins get up to over the winter, how climate change and human activity impact on how they breed and feed, and why some colonies and species are declining whilst others thrive.

Adélie had been the only continental breeding penguin species for a long time. But now, gentoos have moved further south due to climate change and also find breeding sites on the Antarctic mainland. Photo: Katja Riedel
Adélie had been the only continental breeding penguin species for a long time. But now, gentoos have moved further south due to climate change and also find breeding sites on the Antarctic mainland. Photo: Katja Riedel

On World Penguin Day, 25 April, Penguin Watch released 500,000 new images of penguins and revealed secrets from a year of spying on penguins. Scientists have discovered, among other things that penguins may use their dark droppings to melt out rocky breeding sites earlier than usual by forming groups before they start to breed. The project has also discovered that birds such as the sheathbill make surprise winter visits to colonies. These scavengers live in penguin colonies and are generally thought to migrate to South America during winter.

The dark surface caused by the penguin droppings helps to melt the snow underneath by capturing more solar warmth. Thus, preferred rocky breeding sites are free of snow and ice earlier in the season. Photo: Katja Riedel
The dark surface caused by the penguin droppings helps to melt the snow underneath by capturing more solar warmth. Thus, preferred rocky breeding sites are free of snow and ice earlier in the season. Photo: Katja Riedel

Over the coming year, with 500,000 new images for volunteers to look at and cameras that will take photos every minute during the breeding season, researchers hope to learn even more about the secret life of penguins.

Professor Hart and his PhD student Gemma Clucas with a big smile after a successful deployment of cameras on the remote South Sandwich archipelago. PolarNEWS had been part of that voyage. Photo: Michael Wenger
Professor Hart and his PhD student Gemma Clucas with a big smile after a successful deployment of cameras on the remote South Sandwich archipelago. PolarNEWS had been part of that voyage. Photo: Michael Wenger

The scientists hope these new cameras will reveal how often penguins feed their chicks and how long they have to go to sea to feed in different regions,' said lead researcher Dr Tom Hart of Oxford University's Department of Zoology. “Until now, this has only been possible by putting GPS on penguins. The hope is that, by developing a non-invasive method, we can track penguins across the whole of the Southern Ocean without researchers needing to disturb them.”

To participate in the project, please visit the Penguin Watch webpage www.penguinwatch.org.

Source: Australian Antarctic Division and University of Oxford