Polar Ecology and Conservation Group

tom and fiona walking to the snow hill emperor penguin colony naomi box
Polar Ecology and Conservation Group

About the Group

The polar regions are immensely special, but changing in response to current threats. Climate change, fisheries, pollution and direct human disturbance all threaten polar marine systems. As we move away from scientific bases and populated areas, fewer data are available on populations of predators and, consequently, huge gaps remain in our understanding of the polar ecosystems.

We want our polar regions to be healthy, resilient and to have evidence-based conservation measures. We aim to help by bringing large scale monitoring to these regions.

Camera technology affords us the ability to deploy ‘virtual ecologists’ in hard-to-reach areas, or in places where human presence might disturb wildlife and disrupt their behaviour. Since 2009, we have been deploying time-lapse cameras to monitor penguins year-round all around the Scotia Arc, sub-Antarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula in order to better understand how threats to the ecosystem disrupt the dynamics of resident wildlife. We have broadened our scope of work to seabird monitoring in the Arctic region in 2014 and will be launching a new project on seals in the Southern Ocean, in 2019.

Our camera-monitoring program currently consists of over 150 cameras throughout the Southern Ocean and along the Antarctic Peninsula, overlooking colonies of gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, rockhopper, macaroni, and king penguins, in addition to other seabirds. We have also deployed 15 cameras around the North Atlantic to monitor kittiwakes and guillemots. The cameras take images of the target species year-round and, using these images, we are able to determine the health of the colony by obtaining reproduction survival rates while also observing novel behaviours, such as why and where penguins spend their winter months. We now have millions of images that we are working our way through with the help of our citizen science volunteers. You can help too! Visit our projects’ website to help us count penguins, seabirds and seals.

 

Projects

Ongoing: Penguin Watch and Seabird Watch

Upcoming: Seal Watch

Penguin Watch, Seabird Watch and Seal Watch are citizen science initiatives set up by Oxford University in collaboration with other international research groups and The Zooniverse. For the past decade, we have sought to find solutions to the present data gaps, using cameras and genetic analysis. Together, these approaches have resulted in an integrated monitoring network that has the capacity to provide data to policy-makers on areas particularly sensitive to fishing and human disturbance.

With the help of the Computer Vision laboratory at the University of Oxford, we are also working to develop a recognition tool by which computers can automatically count every individual in an image. By working at the fruitful interface of ecology and computer vision, we hope to improve the management of data from imagery and answer novel questions about wildlife dynamics that would otherwise be impossible.

 

Recent Publications

Cole, T. L. et al. (2019) Mitogenomes uncover extinct penguin taxa and reveal island formation as a key driver of speciation. Molecular Biology and Evolution.https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msz017

Clucas, G. C. et al. (2018) Comparative population genomics in Antarctica: ecological & evolutionary factors driving patterns of intraspecific genetic variation in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic penguins. Molecular Ecology.https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.14896

Black, C. et al. (2018) Variation in the phenology of Pygoscelis penguins across two species latitudinal range. Ecology and Evolutionhttps://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.4160

Jones, F. M. et al. (2018) Time-lapse imagery from penguin colonies – data for monitoring and computer vision, using citizen science. Scientific Datahttps://doi.org/10.1038/sdata/2018.124

Hart, T. & Convey, P. (2018) The South Sandwich Islands – a terrestrial community of metapopulations across all trophic levels. Biodiversityhttps://doi.org/10.1080/14888386.2018.1464952

Hinke, J. T. et al. (2018) Estimating nest-level phenology and reproductive success of colonial seabirds using time-lapse cameras. Methods in Ecology and Evolutionhttps://doi.org/10.7289/V5Z036F7

Dodino, S. et al.(2018) Year-round colony attendance patterns for the Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua) at Martillo Island, Tierra del Fuego, Argentinahttps://doi.org/10.1676/17-026.1

Black, C. et al.(2018) Time-lapse imagery of Adelie penguins reveals a mid-winter phase of site occupation. PLOSOnehttps://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193532

Borowicz, A.. et al.(2018) Newly-discovered Adélie penguin colonies reveal major seabird hotspot in the Danger Islands. Scientific Reportshttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22313-w  

Foley, C. M., Hart, T., & Lynch, H.J. (2018) King penguin populations increase on South Georgia but explanations remain elusive. Polar Biologyhttps://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-018-2271-z