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How spying on penguins just might save them

New system lets scientists keep tabs on penguins even from thousands of miles away.
Image: Emperor penguins
Emperor penguins are classified as "near-threatened," meaning they face the threat of extinction in the near future rather than imminently.Martin Passingham / Reuters file

With sea ice melting and their habitat changing as a result of warmer temperatures, Emperor penguins are facing big trouble. But now scientists have developed a high-tech system for keeping tabs on the birds even from thousands of miles away, and they say it could help wildlife conservationists figure out how best to save the birds from extinction.

“If we can monitor the species closely, we will be able to measure how prediction models are performing and where (which of the colonies around Antarctica) the species might last the longest,” Dr. Daniel Zitterbart, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and one of the scientists who developed the system, told NBC News MACH in an email. “Once we know that, stakeholders can take proper action to reduce additional pressure on the ecosystem by, for example, establishing large marine protected areas.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies Emperor penguins as “near-threatened” rather than “endangered,” meaning the species faces the threat of extinction in the near future rather than imminently. Conservationists fear their numbers could continue to decline because of rising global temperatures, with one 2014 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change indicating that the total population of Emperor penguins could fall by 19 percent by 2100.

The new monitoring system, described in a paper published May 2 in the Journal of Applied Physics, uses weather data and time-lapse photography to produce a steady stream of information about the penguins’ foraging behavior. Its heart is an inexpensive time-lapse camera mounted on the ice about 100 feet from a colony. The camera snaps a photo of the colony every minute of the day, and the images are entered into a database and matched with data about air temperature, wind speed, humidity and solar radiation.

The photos and weather data are displayed online, so no matter where researchers are, they can log on to check up on the colony.

The system has already given the researchers a chilling new insight into the animals’ plight. It showed, for instance, that the penguins are huddling to stay warm when it is warmer out. That suggests the birds have less body fat, and thus may be having trouble finding enough fish to eat — possibly because the continuing loss of sea ice is causing plankton, the tiny organisms on which the fish feed, to become scarce.

While Zitterbart said global warming is clearly affecting the availability of food for the penguins, Dr. David Ainley, a wildlife ecologist at H.T. Harvey & Associates, an ecological consulting firm with offices in California and Hawaii, said that the penguins might be having trouble finding enough to eat not as a result of climate change but because of commercial fishing.

Still, Ainley praised the remote-sensing system, saying it's "great that the technique has been developed."

Dr. Rod Downie, head of polar programs at the World Wildlife Fund in the U.K., agreed, saying that the system offers a cost-effective way to conduct research in an extreme environment.

“Antarctica is one of the most remote, challenging and expensive locations in the world to do science,” Downie said in an email. “Direct observations of Emperor penguin colonies are particularly difficult as they breed in winter, when conditions are really harsh.”