Penguin Census

April 17, 2020
Aryn Baker
CHRISTIAN ASLUND—GREENPEACE

SNOW ISLAND, Antarctica—Click. Click click click. Click. Steve Forrest is a biologist. He’s standing at the top of a cliff. It’s on an island off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Below him are several hundred penguins and their chicks. Forrest’s job is to count every one of them with the metal clicker in his hand. It’s not easy. It’s snowing. The wind is howling. And the fluffy gray chicks won’t stay still.

CHINSTRAP FAMILY Chinstrap penguins are named for the black band that runs around the throat of an adult bird.

CHRISTIAN ASLUND—GREENPEACE

Forrest has been coming to Antarctica every January for six years. He’s helping count the area’s chinstrap penguins. It’s part of a global penguin census. This will help researchers better understand the Antarctic environment.

Ocean Life

There used to be lots of chinstraps in Antarctica. But their numbers are declining. Why? “All the evidence we have points to climate change as being responsible,” Heather J. Lynch says. She designed the survey. Census team member Noah Strycker adds, “We know [climate change] is hitting the Antarctic Peninsula harder than practically anywhere else in the world.”

ONE, TWO, THREE Noah Strycker, of the penguin census team, counts chinstraps on Snow Island.

CHRISTIAN ASLUND—GREENPEACE

Scientists suspect that warming waters affect krill, the tiny creatures that chinstraps eat. This is bad for the ocean food chain. Whales eat krill. So do small fish that larger fish depend on. But krill are hard to study. So researchers focus on penguins. They’re easier to track. They return to the same spot each year to lay eggs. If chinstraps aren’t doing well, krill probably aren’t either. “Penguins give us an idea about what is going on in the ocean around us,” Forrest says.

That doesn’t mean counting penguins is easy. Chinstraps nest on rocky slopes to protect their eggs from predators. Sometimes, scientists use binoculars to count the birds from a distance. Other times, the census requires them to brave freezing water in inflatable boats. “It’s miserable, it’s cold, but we love it,” Forrest says. “We get to go places where few people have ever set foot.”

HÁBITAT SEVERO Aguas heladas turbulentas rodean la isla rocosa donde esta colonia de pingüinos hace su hogar.

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Chinstraps are great climbers. So scientists must be too. And penguins aren’t always clean. Their nesting grounds are coated in guano, or droppings, so these places are slippery and smelly.

Drone Assistance

This year, Forrest’s research team got help from robotics engineers from Northeastern University. That’s in Boston, Massachusetts. The engineers fly a drone over a colony in order to take pictures. The team will use those photos to record the colony’s location and size. It will also use them to teach computers how to recognize penguin nests. One day, computers could count penguins.

LOOK UP Two students from Northeastern University fly a drone over a colony of penguins.

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Counting penguins is important, Forrest says. The more we learn, the more we know about krill and the ocean animals that depend on them. “What’s happening in the Antarctic is happening everywhere,” he says. “When we understand it, we can start fixing it.”

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