Penguin physics: how one polymer physicist has revolutionised the way we track penguins

6 December 2016

In this month’s Physics World, polymer physicist Peter Barham discusses his unusual foray into penguin flipper band design, and how his approach to penguin identification has changed the way we track these animals.

Penguins, with their complex lifecycles, agile nature and preference for living in large colonies are not the easiest animals for biologists to track and study. However, as counterintuitive as it might seem, the work of a polymer physicist is revolutionising the way scientists follow these flightless birds.

Originally, penguins were tracked using metal bands attached to their flippers, but with evidence suggesting that these bands require penguins to exert significantly more energy to go about their daily activities, Peter Barham took it upon himself to find a material that would fare better.

Barham now is an active contributor to the field, having chaired the Eighth International Penguin Conference in Bristol, and helping organise the Ninth International Penguin Congress in Cape Town.

Barham explains: “Although I still consider myself a physicist, I have also become accepted as a real penguin biologist.”

Starting from scratch, Barham designed and developed equipment to test flipper bands made from different materials and in different styles. His designs, which were lighter and had less drag, were tested on penguins at Bristol Zoo and then in the wild.

Barham’s research has in turn led to a greater understanding of penguin behaviour, including the unexpected finding that hand-reared chicks are more likely to survive than naturally reared chicks. His observations have even led to changed priorities in the event of an oil spill – removing clean birds from an area is now given priority over cleaning oiled birds.

His close work with penguins also inspired a completely new idea for penguin identification – one that didn’t require any tagging at all. Barham realised that African penguins have unique markings on their chests, and with a team of computer scientists developed software to identify them from a photo or video still.

This penguin-recognition software, along with microchipping, has now made tagging almost obsolete, saving on time, resources and additional stress to the birds.

Barham’s team has developed a piece of equipment to weigh and record the mass of penguins as they arrive and leave the nest, with their findings leading to a greater insight into the relationships between penguin parent welfare and chick-rearing success.

How else are physicists working to improve the way in which biologists can study their subjects? Find out more in this month’s Physics World.

If you’re already a member of the IOP, you can read our feature online now.

Also in this issue:

* Feature: Quantum vision
Humans can detect very small amounts of light, but physicists are now testing this to the limit, using quantum optics to see whether the eye can detect a single photon.

* Bumper physics-themed book reviews section
Get your holiday reading list in shape with our expanded reviews section, featuring “water bears” in outer space, the “pope of physics” Enrico Fermi, the great American eclipse and more.