• (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A research group in Oxford is calling upon everyday people to help them collect data for a large-scale conservation project.
Shami Sivasubramanian

8 Apr 2016 - 10:06 AM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2016 - 10:06 AM

An Oxford University research team in the UK have launched a project that marries community support and online technology in the name of penguin conservation.

It's called PenguinWatch - volunteers are asked to count penguins in a series of photographs taken across the continent of Antarctica. After a brief tutorial, anyone can use simple tools to mark chicks, eggs, and adults in each penguin colony, to assist with the team's conservation and research efforts.

The project launched yesterday, and has been touted as the largest Antarctic citizen science venture in the world.

The team now have more that 75 cameras across Antarctica and its surrounding islands. Each camera takes a picture every hour, meaning hundreds of thousands of new images still await analysis.

"Their counts will then be compared to an algorithm being developed by computer scientists to automate penguin counting from photos," reads an official bulletin on the Australian Antarctic Division's website.

There's even potential for schools to use the project as a teaching tool, lead researcher Dr Tom Hart tells BBC News. By getting classrooms to adopt their own colonies, they can have fun and "[learn] about Antarctica along the way".

Currently the team tracks 30 odd colonies in these regions which include gentoo, chinstrap, King, emperor and Adélie penguins native to the region.


"We can't do this work on our own, and every penguin that people click on and count on the website - that's all information that tells us what's happening at each nest, and what's happening over time," said Dr Hart.

The importance of their research comes from census data that show a link between global warming a decline in penguin populations, especially in adelie and chinstrap penguins.

PenguinWatch is the latest project in an increasing swell of citizen science approaches to data analysis. Last August, during National Science Week 2015, a similar volunteer program was put in place by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Western Australia - here the goal was to help astronomers classify the images of thousands of galaxies located billions of light years away.

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