June 28, 2008

New Tracking System Distinguishes From Thousands Of Penguins

Researchers have developed surveillance technology that can identify thousands of near identical African Penguins and then monitor them over long periods of time.

The system will boost our understanding of the animals and it could even help ecologists solve the mystery of how long penguins live, the team said.

It could also be used to track other species, from cheetahs to sharks.

The Royal Society's Summer Exhibition is currently displaying the groundbreaking technology.

"Until now, if you wanted to follow penguins you would use metal flipper bands, which have an ID code," said Peter Barham, professor of physics at Bristol University, who developed the Penguin Recognition System.

Before, ecologists had to capture the animals and record the tag number.

But Professor Barham said the new system is time intensive and error prone.

Especially when dealing with 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."

Unique markings on the penguins can be detected by the new system.  Adult African penguins carry black spots on their chests and scientists believe that no two penguins have the same pattern.

"We set a camera up in a location where the penguins will regularly walk past on their way to or from the sea," said Professor Barham.

"Every image that the camera processes is then sent back to a computer."

The software can recognize 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 recognizes or new penguin. The software then records an ID number and the date, time and location of the sighting.

"It means we can track penguins out in the wild, in real time and with real accuracy," said Barham.

Professor Barham believes this new tracking system will help to better understand the animals both in terms of their movement patterns and behavior.

"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 as well as try the technology on species other than African penguins.

"For any species with patterned plumage, cheetahs or whale sharks for example, then the same technology could use the patterns as individual identifiers," said Professor Barham.

He added: "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."

"We believe the new technology will enable biologists to identify and monitor large numbers of diverse species cheaply, quickly and automatically," added Dr Tilo Burghardt, from the Department of Computer Science at Bristol University, who has worked on the system.


On the Net:

Penguin Recognition Project

Bristol University

Royal Society Summer Exhibition