Hidden cameras spy on penguins

By Sylvia Varnham O'Regan April 27, 2012
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New low-cost cameras are helping scientists study penguins during the harsh winter months.

THE SECRET LIFE OF penguins in the Antarctic winter is being revealed for the first time. 

In a joint venture between the Zoological Society of London and Oxford University, scientists placed 16 hidden cameras around Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia to gather information about the breeding patterns of gentoo (Pygoscelis papua)  and king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) during the winter.

Because of the harsh winter conditions, most research on penguins is carried out in the summer, missing the start of the breeding season in April.

While the British team is not the first to carry out research in the winter, it is the first to attempt it on a budget, using cheap cameras and a large volunteer base.

Spying on penguins on a budget

Dr Ben Collen, a research fellow at the Zoological Society of London who took part in the study, says the use of cheaper equipment could open the door for more, cost-effective studies on a wider scale.

“Antarctica is larger than Europe, but only a handful of penguin colonies are monitored at the moment. Using cameras that cost less than £500 ($AU 789) each could change the way we study Antarctic wildlife,” he says. “To date, this type of study has been prohibitively expensive.”

Dr Tom Hart, a penguin ecologist at the Zoological Society of London who led the study, says the cameras themselves were surprisingly resilient despite strong wind and temperatures as low as -25ºC.

“The housing of some of them got pretty battered, and one rolled down a cliff, but carried on working for a week despite having a hole in it,” he says.

Penguin surveillance

Penguin populations are declining worldwide as the effects of climate change, disease and reduced fish stocks take their toll.

Surveillance of the species will give researchers vital information about the penguins’ breeding habits including arrival times on shore, courtship practices and fledging of young chicks. 

Dr Colin Southwell, an ecologist at the Australian Antarctic Division who has been using cameras to monitor penguins in the Antarctic for the past six years, says the practice is growing.

“There is increased interest in using cameras to monitor penguin populations right around Antarctic to assess possible impacts of fisheries and climate change on penguins,” he says.

The results of the British study are yet to be analysed but researchers say that as well as information about breeding, they hope to get a better understanding of the penguins’ behaviour, including how they respond to a changing climate.

“It’s a worrying time because we’re seeing declines in penguin populations worldwide. However, it’s also very exciting because we’re finally getting the tools to understand what is happening – we hope in time to do something about it,” Ben says.