Surveillance system identifies penguins as they waddle to the beach
The problem of keeping track of thousands of near-identical African penguins may have been solved.
Researchers have developed surveillance technology that can identify individual birds and then monitor them over long periods of time.
The team says the system will boost our understanding of the animals; it could even help ecologists solve the mystery of how long penguins live.
The researchers say it could also track other species, from cheetahs to sharks.
The technology is on display at the Royal Society's Summer Exhibition.
Keeping track of big colonies of birds can be tricky
Peter Barham, professor of physics at Bristol University, who developed the Penguin Recognition System, said: "Until now, if you wanted to follow penguins you would use metal flipper bands, which have an ID code."
To read them, ecologists need to capture the animals and record the tag number.
But this is time intensive and error prone, says Professor Barham.
Especially when dealing with large numbers of birds such as the 20,000-strong population of African penguins that live on Robben Island, South Africa, that have been the focus of this study.
"These bands have also been suggested to be damaging to some species and there is clear evidence that they are, possibly due to the wear of the feathers that they cause," he added.
"We really wanted to find a way to automatically monitor these birds without harming them."
The technology, first tested on captive penguins, works by spotting the birds' spots. Here, it identifies David the penguin
The new tracking system is able to detect unique markings on the penguins.
Adult African penguins carry black spots on their chests; scientists believe that no two penguins have the same pattern.
Professor Barham said: "We set a camera up in a location where the penguins will regularly walk past on their way to or from the sea.
"Every image that the camera processes is then sent back to a computer."
The camera snaps the penguins as they walk past
The software has been trained to recognise if there are any penguins in the camera's field of vision. If there are, it looks at the spot patterns to determine whether it is a bird that it recognises or new penguin. It then records the ID number and the date, time and location of the sighting.
Professor Barham told BBC News: "It means we can track penguins out in the wild, in real time and with real accuracy."
The technology is already having an impact on tracking the penguins on Robben Island.
Professor Barham believes it will help to better understand the animals both in terms of their movement patterns and behaviour.
The new technology will enable biologists to identify and monitor large numbers of diverse species cheaply, quickly and automatically
Dr Tilo Burghardt
"The information we will get is going to be enormous, and there are questions we can answer that nobody has even thought of before."
The researchers now plan to use a moving camera, which can pan, zoom and tilt to track the animals.
The team also want to try the technology on species other than African penguins.
Professor Barham said: "For any species with patterned plumage, cheetahs or whale sharks for example, then the same technology could use the patterns as individual identifiers.
"You just have to train the system to spot a particular species, then to find the areas where the pattern is likely to occur and then to process this information."
Dr Tilo Burghardt, from the Department of Computer Science at Bristol University, who has worked on the system, added: "We believe the new technology will enable biologists to identify and monitor large numbers of diverse species cheaply, quickly and automatically."
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