Antarctica from your Armchair with Penguin Watch

Penguins in the wild of Antarctica recorded by scientists

They call it Armchair Penguinology: studying 200,000 photos of 30+ penguin colonies in Antarctica and recording their movements. Scientists from Oxford University collected the images but don’t have the manpower to sort through them all, so that’s where you and I come in.

By signing up for the Penguin Watch project on the Zooniverse website, you can classify photos and mark up the adults, chicks, eggs and other animals appearing on your screen. With numbers of penguins declining, scientists are desperate to pinpoint why, and it’s hoped this study will throw up some suggestions by monitoring breeding patterns and behaviour.

Icy habitat of penguins beside glaciers and rocks
A peek at the landscapes of Antarctica, where it’s a balmy 7 degrees.

Becoming a citizen scientist with Penguin Watch isn’t about having a bunch of qualifications (which is pretty useful considering I only have a double GCSE in science lying dormant for nearly a decade). And neither is it about quick reactions, theories or formulae. You can take as much time as you need to study a photo and there are effectively no wrong answers, because you won’t be the only one analysing each image. A quick tutorial shows you what different types of penguins and their chicks look like, so you don’t have to bluff your way through.

Just log on whenever you have a few minutes to spare, or indeed when you really should be doing something crucial but quite fancy another round of animal spotting. The system will show you a photo and ask if there are any animals featured – you select yes or no. If you’ve answered yes, you then click on the centre of each animal, using one of the four categories, and select the black and white cross if you’ve marked something incorrectly (but do bear in mind this bit is temperamental on the iPad, so try to use a computer if you can).

Marking penguins in an Oxford University project with citizen scientists
Some of the cameras are very well hidden – hence the grass covering the lens!

Once you’ve identified everything in the shot, or as many as you can count before a limit is reached, you’ll be taken to the next stage. Simply tell them you’ve marked every animal, or that there were too many to mark, and you’re done. You can then tweet or Facebook the image, or add a comment which other volunteers can reply to.

Not only do you get the feel-good glow that volunteering provides, but you also have the chance to see what Antarctica looks like without Photoshop effects or a bunch of pesky explorers dominating your field of vision. Spoiler alert: it rarely resembles a glittering winter wonderland.

Photo near the South Pole showing natural conditions
Icy rock formations in an animal-free shot.

Many parts are muddy and unremarkable, accessorised by feeble bits of plant life; others are covered in jagged rock formations with a dribble of ice and not much else to look at; the night shots and snow flurry stills are actually very boring. But sometimes the camera picks up something quite beautiful, even without animals to jazz things up. You linger a little longer than you should, knowing this isn’t an image the scientists can use, but finding it strangely fascinating all the same. Hey, it’s a perk of the task in hand.

I’ve spent the last few days dipping in and out of the project and have concluded it’s a worthy new mouse-clicking addiction – I get to nose around a completely alien part of the world, whilst doing something useful for natural sciences. If you’re interested in becoming a citizen scientist, or you just think penguins are too darn cute, you’ve got nothing to lose in signing up.

Animals near the South Pole in the snow
I may have just crashed a domestic row between these two.

Want to see the project’s progress? Follow @penguin_watch and @the_zooniverse for more insights. And you may want to follow me, too – I’m @misspallen.