International Camera Network Keeps Eyes on Antarctic Penguins

NOAA Fisheries
AMLR researcher next to a remote camera in Antarctica.

An international collaboration that deployed automated cameras across the Antarctic Peninsula is extending the reach of research teams who track penguin colonies as ecological bellwethers of the Antarctic ecosystem.

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., and other countries including Argentina, Poland, Australia, England, and Ukraine developed the network of 53 remote cameras focused on colonies of Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins. The network enhances and effectively extends the long-running penguin studies to periods when scientists cannot visit and observe the colonies themselves.

"The cameras have really allowed us to extend the effectiveness of our research and monitoring beyond the limited time when we have people on the ground," said George Watters, director of the SWFSC's Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division. "The penguins can tell us a lot about the environment, but we have to be able to observe them and this way we can."

The penguin studies help fulfill U.S. responsibilities under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR, a treaty between 25 nations designed to manage Antarctic fisheries under the goal of preserving species diversity and stability of the Antarctic marine ecosystem. Penguins and many other Antarctic animals feed on small shrimp-like creatures called krill, which have come under increasing fishing pressure.

Each of the remote cameras typically shoots 12 photos a day, every day of the year. After downloading the photos during brief visits to the camera sites, scientists can then speed through the time-lapse images of the penguin colonies, noting when the penguins lay their eggs, when the eggs hatch, and, most importantly, the numbers of chicks produced and their age of creching, when young penguins leave their nest and join with other juveniles.

"We know that the age of creching can predict the strength of that cohort," Watters said. "So it's an important reflection of the health of the population."

Jefferson Hinke, who leads the camera project for the SWFSC, sits at his desk in La Jolla, Calif., looking through photos from a camera pointed at an Adelie penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula. Each camera can view about 10 to 15 penguin nests at a time, and as the pictures click by, Hinke points out the appearance of eggs, then chicks, then maturing juvenile penguins.

"These chicks are old enough here that they are starting to become independent," Hinke says, pointing at the screen. "The timing of this tells us something about the health of the population and the ecosystem they depend on. For example, their growth to independence suggests local food supplies were sufficient for them and their age provides a rough indication of whether we expect them to survive the coming winter. "

He said the collaboration between countries has been strong, with all the nations sharing and benefiting from the data. Watters estimates that the cameras collect about 80 percent of the data that people could, at little additional cost. The collaborators are now considering further expansion of the network.

"This project has really reinvigorated some research projects by giving everyone a low-cost means to collect important data," Hinke said. "It has been huge for us to essentially continue monitoring at a field camp when we cannot be there."

For more information:

Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division, SWFSC
The Convention of the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources

Remote Camera Overlooks Adelie Penguin Chicks Photos from a Remote Antarctic Camera
A remote camera overlooks Adelie penguin chicks with Admiralty Bay in the background. Creching photo series: A series of photos from a remote Antarctic camera illustrates one nest from hatching and growth of chicks to creching, when the juveniles leave the nest to become independent.