Counting Penguins

Biologists are conducting a global penguin census.
By Aryn Baker, adapted by TIME for Kids editors
As seen on
An chinstrap penguin stands on rocks on an island in the Antarctic. Scientists work with equipment in the background.
Researchers arrive at an island in Antarctica where they will count chinstrap penguins.

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

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

Forrest has been coming to Antarctica for years. He’s helping conduct a survey of the area’s chinstrap penguin population. It’s part of a global penguin census that will help researchers better understand the Antarctic environment.

Ocean Life

Chinstraps are Antarctica’s most numerous penguins, but their numbers are declining. Why? “All the evidence we have points to climate change as being responsible,” says Heather J. Lynch, who 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.”

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

Scientists suspect that warming waters affect krill, the tiny, shrimplike creatures that chinstraps eat. This is bad for the ocean food chain. Whales and seals eat krill. So do small fish, like anchovies, which larger fish depend on. “Without krill, we wouldn’t have fish,” Forrest says.

But krill are hard to study. So researchers focus on the penguins. They’re easier to track since they return to the same spot each year to lay eggs. If chinstraps aren’t doing well, it means that krill probably aren’t either. “Penguins give us an idea about what is going on in the ocean around us,” says Forrest.

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 pounding surf and 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.”

Rough, icy waters surround the rocky land where this penguin colony makes its home.

Despite their stubby legs and stiff wings, chinstraps are excellent climbers. This means scientists must be too. And penguins aren’t always clean. Their nesting grounds are coated in guano, or droppings, which makes these places slippery and smelly.

Drone Assistance

In 2020, 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. This way, computers could one day count penguins using satellite photography.

Two student researchers from Northeastern University fly a drone over a colony of penguins.

Some of the colonies Forrest counted have shrunk by more than half since they were counted 50 years ago. Other colonies have never been counted at all. That’s why it’s important to do a chinstrap census now, Forrest says. The more we learn about chinstraps, the more we learn 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.”

This story was originally published in TIME on February 10, 2020.