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Dr Tom Hart oversees a project monitoring penguin population health in Antarctica, using time lapse cameras and an online citizen science project called Penguinwatch.

Dr Tom Hart in Antarctica © Jim Wilson
Dr Tom Hart in Antarctica

Our work is all about ecology and conservation. There is evidence of penguin declines and we want to find out the causes. We need to know what the threats are in order to mitigate them.

We are monitoring six species of penguin with more than 100 time lapse cameras. Each year, I go to Antarctica for between two and four months, to collect data from existing cameras and set up new ones.

Our cameras overlook colonies and you can see into all the nests. The cameras take photos every hour, sometimes every minute. This means we can count penguin numbers and their movements: how long they go to sea for, how long they forage for, and how much time they spend with their chicks.

We’re trying to work out population movements and structure. We need to know whether colonies function as one unit, or whether they interbreed. If a colony is declining are they migrating out of that colony or are they dying off? The more sensitive the measure the better you can detect early warning signals and we're developing systems that work for seabirds worldwide.

Penguin declines overlap with areas where the greatest impacts of climate change are being seen. However, we cannot be certain that climate change is the driver. There are a lot of fisheries in the area. Absence of sea ice is needed to fish, so where penguins are declining in areas where there is an absence of ice is it simply because of the fishing, or is it because of the climate change that has caused the ice to melt?

If we simply blame climate change we risk overlooking the potential harm of fishing. We also monitor the presence, and absence, of disease. We need to know what causes the decline in order to determine what to do about them.

Penguinwatch is awesome! We’re a year old and we’ve already had over 2.5 million hits on our website. Anyone can participate; you don’t need to be an expert.

We’re collecting more than half a million images every year now. Volunteers are asked to identify the total number of penguins, chicks and eggs by clicking on them. We can observe how individual nests develop over the course of a year, such as when penguins arrive to nest, the dates they settle down, when the eggs hatch, and whether the chicks survive.

Each image is viewed by several volunteers and we find that combining volunteers' clicks is more accurate than one scientist looking at the images. Afterall, everyone makes mistakes! There is a dedicated core of people that keep coming back. We’re getting some beautiful data. Eventually computers will take over more of this kind of data analysis but for the time being there is no substitute for the analysis that humans can do.

I hitch lifts on tour boats because it saves time and money. I give talks to the people on board, who are there because they want to get close to the wildlife, and they often donate to the project. One of our biggest supporters is Quark Expeditions. This year, everyone who participated in the first month were entered into a draw and Quark donated a trip to Antarctica for one lucky Penguinwatch user. That added nearly one million hits to our website because people wanted to win the prize! A teacher from the United States won the competition, which is really nice. Hopefully the trip will also inspire his students.

In the field, I maintain and monitor about 60 sites. I try to get to them once per year but it’s patchy. Occasionally you have 40 minutes to set a camera up in a snow storm, and then you have to leave because that’s as long as the ship can wait! I've occasionally lain awake in the UK wondering whether the camera is still upright and working.

Our project costs about £60,000 per year to run, although that doesn't include our excellent collaborators. The Australian Antarctic Division started this kind of research and wour niche is making it cheaper and scaling it up. We have collaborators in the United States, Argentina and Chile.

I’ve been sponsored by the Darwin Initiative who helped set the project up in the Antarctic. Most of the cameras are sponsored and donors can adopt a colony. These funds usually pay for replacement cameras so we can keep the project going when the original cameras cease to function.

This is a commitment for the long term. We’ve already been part of setting up a big marine protected area and we’re trying to establish more. The longer you monitor things the better the data gets. You see the long term patterns and whether things are really worrying or just part of a cycle. The interest is there, so I think we can sustain it.

I’m next going out there in October for four months. Two months on a Norwegian lifeboat and two months on a tour ship!