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.