(No, the penguins aren’t from space.) Climatologist and explorer Alain Hubert relies on ground truth to aid satellite-based research at a newly discovered penguin colony in Antarctica. (National Geographic News)
Use our resources to understand how researchers take a penguin head-count.
- Read the Nat Geo News article, then watch our terrific Wild Chronicles video on “Antarctic Penguins.” Both are about scientists trying to count how many penguins there are in different colonies in Antarctica. What are some similarities between the two studies? What are some differences?
- Both groups of researchers are studying penguin colonies in Antarctica.
- Both groups of researchers are taking a “head-count” to estimate the number of birds in each colony.
- Both groups of researchers do multiple counts. This allows them to track the health of the penguin colony—to see how many chicks survived to adulthood, how many pairs were able to breed, how the birds were able to find food over the course of different seasons.
- The researchers in the Nat Geo News article are focused on emperor penguins, while the Wild Chronicles researchers are studying emperors, chinstrap, gentoo, and Adelie penguins.
- The researchers in the Nat Geo News article are following up on studies conducted using satellite imagery, which identified new emperor penguin colonies. The Wild Chronicles researchers are limited to an old-fashioned head count.
- The researchers arrived at the penguin colonies in different ways. The researchers in the Nat Geo News article took Ski-Doos across the ice from their “home” at a research station in Antarctica. The Wild Chronicles researchers stayed on a ship (the National Geographic Explorer) and took head-counts on day trips to the mainland.
- The researchers in the Nat Geo News article were focused on getting an accurate estimate of the number of birds in the colony. The researchers in the Wild Chronicles video also studied how the birds built their nests and interacted with their ecosystem—including varying ice levels and predators such as leopard seals.
- Researchers in both the Nat Geo News article and Wild Chronicles video express concern about how climate change may impact penguin colonies. How?
- Alain Hubert, the explorer in the Nat Geo News article, “is concerned that melting sea ice could make it harder for penguins to find food sources.” This is exactly the same concern researchers in the video have—specifically, they fear a decrease in the population of the cold-loving chinstrap penguins as global climate heats up.
- Satellite imagery has many, many uses—from documenting habitat loss to weather forecasting to identifying land cover to James Bond-type surveillance. Now, researchers are relying on satellite imagery to identify and estimate the number of penguins in colonies in Antarctica. Can you think of other uses for this type of head-counting satellite imagery?
- Law-enforcement officials use the technology to count the number and groupings of people at high-profile events, such as presidential inaugurations.
- Government officials are using satellite imagery to help count and manage forest fires.
- Health-care professionals are using satellite imagery to get an accurate count and placement of people in cities (such as Am Timan, Chad) in order to efficiently provide disaster relief for natural hazards or political crises.
- Forest-management surveyors are using the technology to count the health and number of trees in both rural and urban areas.
- Traffic engineers are using the technology to identify and reduce high-traffic areas (bottlenecks).
- Scientists are using the technology to count numbers of species besides penguins, from whales to elephants to rats.
- In fact, the Polar Geospatial Center wants YOUR HELP to count Weddell seals! This fun citizen science activity provides you with satellite images from Antarctica, outlines how to read them, and asks you to help count the number and placement (swimming in the sea or lounging on the land) of Weddell seals. Here’s an introduction.
5 thoughts on “Counting Penguins from Space”