If you need a break at work, trying counting penguins: An oddly addictive website called Penguin Watch will show you a photo from Antarctica and ask you to tag baby penguins and adults, all in the name of science.
Not long ago, studying penguins might have meant spending months in sub-zero temperatures, crawling through snowstorms, and possibly growing an ice-covered beard. The advent of cheap remote cameras changed that—and now there are so many photos of penguin colonies that researchers need help capturing the data.
"It's vital because currently we can't do this any other way," says Tom Hart, a researcher from Oxford University who leads the Penguin Watch project. "We have nearly 2 million photos of penguins. So this is already something that's bigger than us, and we can't get the data out without the community supporting us."
The data can help scientists understand how different penguin colonies respond to challenges like climate change, commercial fishing, and tourists. "When threats to penguins aren't uniform, we can learn about those threats by getting measurements at a massive scale," he says. "In some parts of Antarctica, penguins are declining, in others they're doing very well. The difference between them and the reasons is what we're quite interested in."
Cameras can also track penguins without disturbing them, unlike in-person researchers or GPS tracking devices attached to the birds.
The project just launched a new website, which will soon give the community feedback about how their data is being used. (In one case, the photos helped researchers discover that some penguins use their poop to melt snow so they have a dry place to breed). Later, the data may help determine where penguins are most at risk, and where Antarctica might add new Marine Protected Areas to help save them.
All Photos: Tom Hart