Get ready to waste some more time online with Penguin Watch 2.0; At least this time it’s for a good cause.
Dubbed the largest Antarctic citizen science venture in the world, Penguin Watch 2.0 is asking for your help in counting penguins.
“We can’t do this work on our own, and every penguin that people click on and count on the website -that’s all information that tells us what’s happening at each nest, and what’s happening over time,” says Dr. Tom Hart, penguinologist (yes, that’s what he calls himself) and chief of staff for the Penguin Lifelines project at Oxford University.
With weather conditions as they are in Antarctica and a need to observe penguins in their natural habitat without disturbing or disrupting their behaviour, the project team is forced to rely on cameras to monitor penguin colonies -over 75 cameras, in fact, which take between eight and 96 images daily over the course of a year. Hence the need for extra help in translating those thousands of images into useful data.
The project is part of the Zooniverse group of web-based citizen science projects aimed at using crowd-sourcing methods to tap into large collections of research data. In 2007, another project named Galaxy Zoo invited members of the public to help sort through images of galaxies to determine which ones were spiral like the Milky Way and which were elliptical. The Zooniverse group is supported by a collection of organizations including Oxford University in the U.K., Stony Brook University in the United States and the Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta.
The Penguin Lifelines project sees its work as helping to take stock of changes to Antarctica’s climate and environment and because penguins are top predators, variations in their population or behaviour are likely reflective of changes within the greater ecosystem of the Antarctic. The project aims at tracking changes to the penguins’ breeding cycles, nest survival rates, rates of predation on chicks as well as any effects that variations in sea ice might have on their breeding habits.
“Ultimately, we hope that our research can directly feed into policy as we build evidence to determine important regions for penguins and highlight specific colonies of concern,” says the project team.
Meanwhile, researchers have finally figured out an age-old head scratcher: how penguin feathers stay ice-proof in their sub-zero climates. In a study in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C, researchers at Beihang University in Beijing, China, have analyzed the feathers of the Humboldt penguin, whose habitat ranges from coastal Peru to the southern tip of Chile, where despite the cold ocean currents coming up from Antarctica the penguin’s feathers keep it warm and dry. Researchers have suspected that the key is in the feather’s ability to repel water, but so far investigations into materials put under high humidity or ultra-low temperatures have shown that ice can form and stick to even the most “superhydrophobic” surfaces.
Using an electron microscope researchers found that the secret to the penguin feather lies in its structure of microscopic barbs and hooks that allow for just enough space between fibres for air pockets to form, thereby disrupting the adhesive force of the material. “We found that their air-infused microscale and nanoscale hierarchical rough structures endow the body feathers of penguins Spheniscus humboldti with hydrophobicity,” say the study’s authors who see potential applications of their research in the creation of ice-phobic materials and insulators.