Penguin spotting on Robben Island

Posted by Laura Grant on July 2, 2008
Posted in Conservation

Much like no two zebras have the same stripe pattern, scientists working on Cape Town’s Robben Island believe that African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) have a pattern of black spots on their chests that is unique to each penguin – a useful way of identifying individuals.

Monitoring a population of 20,000 or so penguins is something of a challenge, though. Using conventional tagging techniques, only a small percentage of the population can be captured, tagged and monitored. But thanks to the penguin’s spots, scientists working on the Penguin Recognition Project have developed a far less intrusive monitoring system.

The groundbreaking system uses cameras to capture images of passing penguins and using computer technology an extraction of chest spot patterns allows the generation of a unique biometrical identifier for each penguin. These biometric data can then be used to identify individual penguins from video or photographic images. The surveillance system captures detailed and reliable data on the population dynamics and social behaviour of the African penguin, says the University of Bristol, whose project it is.

The project, called the ‘Penguin Recognition Project’, has focused on the African penguin because their numbers have declined from more than a million at the start of the last century to fewer than 170,000 today.

The basic image-recognition system has also been trialled with zebras, sharks and, in principle, can be extended to any species with complex surface patterns.

Peter Barham, Professor of Physics at Bristol University and penguin fanatic, who originated the project said: “Once achieved, these systems will revolutionise the precision, quantity and quality of population data available to ecologists and conservationists. There will also be an animal welfare benefit since there is no need to expose the animals to the stress of capture, or side-effects of being marked.”

The Penguin Recognition Project is a project of the University of Bristol conducted with the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town.

It has a great website “Spot the Penguin” where you can see lots of penguin pictures (such as the one above) and find out more about African penguins and the project.

Via :: TerraDaily

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