Penguin Detectives Wanted

Here’s how you can help scientists find new penguin colonies as climate change takes a toll on the seabirds.
(Photo: Nick Garbutt/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
Oct 31, 2016· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Penguins need your eyeballs.

A new web tool developed by NASA and Stony Brook University hopes to tap citizen scientists to help locate undiscovered penguin colonies and, in the process, learn more about how climate change and other threats are affecting the four Antarctic penguin species.

The tool, at, is called the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics, or MAPPPD (pronounced “mapped”) for short. It allows anyone—researchers, policy makers, or the general public—to zoom in on a particular region of Antarctica to see how many penguins live there, how many used to be found in that location, and what future populations are projected to look like.

That’s an important step toward understanding the health of the region. “Penguins are just one component of the Antarctic food web, but they are one of the most visible components, so they’re often used as some measure of how the ecosystem is doing,” said Heather Lynch, associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. “We’ve known for some time that the populations were changing—in some cases quite dramatically—but there wasn’t a sort of one-stop shop for information on that.”

MAPPPD’s immediate goal is to serve as a support service for decisions made by policy makers—for example, deciding which coastlines to protect, where to allow tourism, or where to fish for krill. Penguins already help with some of those plans, such as this past week’s decision to establish the world’s largest marine-protected zone in the Ross Sea.

Moving forward, citizen scientists will play a big role in further improving the information available on MAPPPD.

For one thing, Lynch said the site will allow tourists visiting Antarctica to solve important and pressing questions about penguin populations. For example, if researchers project that there’s a chance a penguin population may have disappeared because of climate change or another threat, tourists passing through those locations can take photos to see if the birds are really gone or count penguins to see how well the colony is doing. “Sometimes all you need is someone to lay eyes on a site, and scientists can’t get to all of those places,” Lynch said.

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There are also opportunities to find new colonies that scientists have not yet identified. “MAPPPD represents what we know, but we continue to find colonies we didn’t know existed before,” Lynch said. She often visits high schools, where she and students use satellite images from Google Earth to look for—and find—new penguin colonies. She hopes that citizen scientists and penguin enthusiasts can do that at home too. “That’s where I hope that we can enlist legions of penguin detectives,” she said. “They can start zooming around in Google Earth and looking at the coastline, and they may easily find colonies that would add to our existing colony list.” Researchers can follow up those discoveries by looking for additional satellite images or by planning to visit the sites.

Meanwhile, Lynch said she expects all kinds of new data to be available on MAPPPD in the near future. “We can see large penguin colonies now from space,” she said. “We’ve had this really data-poor scenario where we have little crumbs on the ground, and our job was to assemble the crumbs. Now we’re getting ready for this huge onslaught of data that will be coming out of satellites. MAPPPD is trying to get ahead of that so we can actually use all of that information as it’s collected by satellites.”

Other penguin experts said they look forward to what can be accomplished with MAPPPD. “It’s an impressive achievement and I’m sure will prove an important tool in helping researchers to map changing penguin populations,” said Michael Dunn, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey. “It certainly complements exactly the research my colleagues and I have been carrying out.”

The more data that become available on the site, the better researchers will be able to make projections about how the four Antarctic penguin species—and the whole continent’s ecology—will fare. Right now, Lynch said, one species, the gentoo penguin, is “kind of a climate change winner.” It’s more adapted to sub-Antarctic conditions, so the species has expanded its range as the continent has warmed. “Many colonies have doubled or more than doubled their populations over the past 20 years,” she said.

Chinstrap and Adélie penguins, on the other hand, are “climate change losers,” Lynch said. “Both are in steep decline. Some local populations have just blinked out.” One study published in October found that chinstrap and Adélie penguin populations around a remote Antarctic island have fallen by about 70 and 40 percent, respectively, since 1978.

The fourth Antarctic species, emperor penguins, are more mysterious because they are so hard to study. “There are concerns, but we still know so little,” Lynch said. Satellites have already helped to fill some of our knowledge gaps. “We’ve learned that their populations are much more mobile than expected,” she said. “Their colonies will move and divide and split and disappear in one place and pop up in another.” She said that spatial analysis, which would be impossible to collect by researchers on the ground, is a huge advantage of satellite data.

When it comes to finding out more about penguins quickly, the more eyeballs the better. Lynch said she and one of her colleagues spent nearly a year each examining images of Antarctica’s coastline for signs of Adélie penguins. “Between the two of us, that was 20 person-months of work, full-time,” she said. “We just can’t do that regularly. That’s where everyone else can help.”