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University of Bristol; University of Cape Town; Bristol Zoo Gardens

A fully automated camera and computer system is being used in South Africa to monitor African penguins. The system can spot an individual penguin in a colony of 15,000 through its coat markings.

‘There are huge benefits in using this type of system both for the animals and researchers,’ explains Innes Cuthill of the University of Bristol. ‘We don’t need to capture and tag individual animals, nor do we need to stay out in the field to monitor them; all our data can be accessed in real time and remotely.’

Currently the system is being trialled, gathering data on the movement of penguins from the colony to the sea. ‘Even with one camera we can monitor population levels, we can also start to obtain data on socialization, identifying if certain penguins regularly associate together,’ says Innes.

Sometimes it is difficult for the camera to get a clear shot of the penguin’s markings but, if it does, it is 98% accurate. ‘The next step is a system that uses more than one camera to overcome the problems of one penguin obscuring another says Innes. We are also looking at working with infra red cameras to allow 24 hour monitoring.’