Scientists who specialize in penguin research are calling on their amateur counterparts — citizen scientists — to help track the flightless birds by taking note of their poop stains, which can be captured by Earth-scanning satellites high above the planet.
Stony Brook University researchers, who are collaborating with NASA, are inviting the public’s help because the task is huge — and critical.
Global climate change is having a serious impact on Antarctica, they said, shrinking the penguins’ frosty world. As ice sheets retreat, citizen scientists can lend a hand to help locate penguins and estimate their population sizes.
“With satellites and a greater emphasis on trying to collect this information, there are many things about penguin biology that we’re learning for the first time,” said Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook.
“My lab is focused on the distribution and abundance of Antarctica’s penguins,” she said. “We want to know how many there are and where they are. In the past this has been done in field surveys.”
Now, satellites and sophisticated web-based technology developed by Lynch and Mathew Schwaller of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, allow academicians and armchair scientists to eavesdrop on the tuxedo-patterned birds.
The tracking method — called the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics, or MAPPPD — is a first-of-its-kind tool that allows viewing of the austere Antarctic landscape. It can be found at penguinmap.com.
Lynch described the different penguin subpopulations of interest to her lab as the Adélie penguins, the Gentoo, the Emperors and the Chinstraps. She cautioned home-based scientists who want to help that they will not see individual birds using the proprietary web-based tool.
Satellite imagery does not pinpoint penguins, but captures the animals’ large guano stains — traces of their existence deposited as they nest, she said.
By estimating the number of stains, citizen scientists can gather a sense of how many penguins are in any given area.
“The guano is only in the places where they’re breeding,” Lynch said. “So we know from the size of their guano stains whether we are looking at tens or tens of thousands of penguins. You don’t see individual heads.”
However, after locating a colony by viewing its poop distribution, she and her colleagues have had a drone with photographic capabilities launched to capture actual images of penguins as they nest.
For years, academic scientists have documented how climate change is threatening Antarctica’s flightless seabirds. Sharon Stammerjohn, an expert in Antarctica at the University of Colorado, has found that the Antarctic peninsula, home to the species that Lynch is studying, is warming faster than any other region in the Southern Hemisphere. Still other projections suggest that a temperature increase of only 1.3 degrees Celsius will jeopardize 40 percent of Emperor penguins and 70 percent of Adélies.
Lynch said Adélies are already disappearing, which is why it’s important for citizen scientists to help.
Citizen science, also known as do-it-yourself science, crowd and civic science, is a growing form of public participation in the big questions facing academicians today.
Lynch is interested in the impact of climate change on penguin populations. But other projects that engage the public in scientific research range from searching the heavens for comets and undiscovered planets to the development of new forms of antibiotics and biofuels.
Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology nonprofit in Brooklyn, is teaching the public the hot, new gene-splicing technique called CRISPR-Cas9, the same technology that scientists in China used three years ago to create twin monkeys from scratch.
Scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca have relied on citizen scientists to help bring back the nine-spotted ladybug from the brink of extinction.
“We couldn’t have done it without citizen scientists,” said Rebecca Rice Smyth, a Cornell entomologist and researcher with the Lost Lady Bug Project.
For Lynch, the South Pole, from its peninsula that juts near Chile to regions in the interior, has always been a challenging place to navigate and work. She travels there periodically with graduate students to study penguins.
Some aspects of her research have been made easier because of technology that allows her to quickly scan more miles.
For those observing the South Pole from their homes, Lynch’s tracking tool allows anyone to query all publicly available penguin census data. For example, any user can access the latest population estimates for Adélie, Gentoo, Emperor and Chinstrap penguins.
“The application we developed was designed for two audiences: One would be the average citizen at home as well people who would be traveling to the Antarctic and who can help us out,” she said, noting the population research appeals to policymakers as well.
Many of them are racing to develop conservation directives about Antarctica to prevent losing penguins forever in the face of continuing climate change, she said.
“We are planning to add a new page of instructions for what people can do,” Lynch said of the website. “If they see something that looks like a penguin colony, they can just send us an email and we can investigate it further or we can get citizen scientists on cruise ships to investigate it.
“The more eyeballs we have searching, the better.”