P-p-p-pin point a penguin

So our  last chat was about this really cool piece of work carried out on the Emperor Penguins of the Antarctic. Normally these majestic birds are ridiculously hard to count, owing to them favouring the depth of the South Pole’s winter for breeding in (try no sunlight at all between May and July on for size). Summary here

However, thanks to ground-breaking use of satellite images and some ingenious analytical wizardry, Fretwell and pals have been able to obtain a good estimate of the global breeding population of the Emperor Penguin. They did this by identifying penguin colonies around the coast of Antarctica, thanks to the fact that large groups of these penguins stain the pristine snow brown with their poo! Once the colonies were identified, high-res pictures were taken of them. Using custom-software, areas of a certain colour and reflective quality were defined as “penguin” by preliminary work, so all you have to do it feed in the new pictures and hey-presto, an accurate count of every breeding adult.

This is awesome. How many conservation efforts are based on uncertain estimates of current populations? Do we ever actually know how many individuals of species x or y are at risk from human actions or climate change? What if our predictions are wildly off, and current practices will see extinction or explosion of numbers in the next few years? This new piece of research shows how modern techniques can really help ground-level conservation efforts, offering a tantalizing glimpse into what may be possible in the future. To say we think we have counted every single breeding member of one species (nearly 600,000) on the globe is (IMO) mind-boggling.

Normally I’m a hardline “evolutionist” [sic], not really interested in conservation efforts as, from my view, they seem to focus on this fluffy bear or that brightly coloured bird, species which make the best advertisements. But this stuff really enthuses me, and it suddenly seems like we’re dealing with the big picture, rather than just in the interests of penguin fanciers (a riskier job you may not find, Aplsey Cheery-Garrad of Captain Scott’s expedition had all his teeth shattered by the cold on a trip to collect some Emperor Penguin eggs; nutter.) or cute documentary makers.

A lot of the discussion between us focused on what other species this could be used for. The authors of the original work suggest that large herbivores with known migration patterns would be do-able, but in general you would be hard pressed to find any animal as suitable for this kind of examination as the biggest penguin on the planet, thanks to its poo staining the snow and drawing the eye of intrepid researchers. However, I think the real merit of this is to show how technological advances can always be adapted and converted by enterprising folk to their own ends. Could some of the ideas developed here help find lost skiers or marooned sailors? In any case, I can imagine conservationists and scientists alike around the globe reading this and thinking “Hmmm, does that mean I could try this?” and ideas blossom.

In a world of increasing worry about the plight of Arctic and Antarctic animals, it may be pleasing to hear there are approximately 100 blue whales worth (~9000 tonnes) of penguin more than we thought there were. Brilliant news, the penguin marches again! Unfortunately, this simply highlights how unreliable previous estimates more. Moreover, the new estimate (taking into account the locations of new colonies) now suggests there are 210,000 emperors at risk from melting ice, up from 120,000. So what should we make of this? More penguins, more at risk, sounds like it balances out right? Perhaps, although I imagine not. More truthfully I think it shows how little we know about these populations on the edge, feeling our presence but not sharing our space (filled with satellites or not). Often it’s these creatures that are most at risk, but of whom we know least about.

Boil the kettle and fire up the PC, I’m off to explore the wild, there’s critters out there who need us.

Fretwell, P., LaRue, M., Morin, P., Kooyman, G., Wienecke, B., Ratcliffe, N., Fox, A., Fleming, A., Porter, C., & Trathan, P. (2012). An Emperor Penguin Population Estimate: The First Global, Synoptic Survey of a Species from Space PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0033751

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