The SBU ecologist who came in from the cold

Watch this: Citizen scientists with a penchant for penguins are invited to check out MAPPPD, a data-driven Antarctic population tracker co-created by Stony Brook University scientist Heather Lynch.

If you’ve ever dreamt of tracking Antarctic penguin populations – and really, who hasn’t? – Stony Brook University can now make it happen.

No, the university won’t fly you to King George Island or outfit you with a state-of the-art military-surplus Marpat Level 7 ECW Hooded Jacket. However, through a collaboration with NASA, the university is recruiting citizen scientists to lend a hand with a virtual census, of sorts, of Antarctica’s iconic inhabitants.

Jokes aside, tracking Antarctic penguin populations is “a critical component of understanding environmental changes in the region,” SBU noted this week, helping scientists decipher the secrets of climate change and their global impacts on everything from the fishing and tourism industries to humanity’s very survival.

Heather Lynch: Bringing Antarctica to Stony Brook.

Heather Lynch: Bringing Antarctica to Stony Brook.

To that end, the university has helped design the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics, a first-of-its-kind attempt to rally worldwide science with an unprecedented study of penguin-omics.

An “open access decision-support tool” with specific functions for managers, scientists and the general public, MAPPPD takes the tracking of penguin populations a waddle further by integrating advanced modeling techniques and remote sensing data – key protocols with “the potential to greatly improve management and collaboration around the Antarctic,” according to Heather Lynch, an associate SBU professor of ecology and evolution who helped create the website.

“MAPPPD contains data for approximately 1,300 historical and current surveys in over 700 sites around the Antarctic continent,” Lynch noted. “Population estimates based on satellite imagery are also used by researchers and represent a growing component of MAPPPD’s utility.”

Lynch teamed with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Oceanites Inc. – a Washington-based nonprofit foundation focused on conservation of the world’s oceans and islands, including wildlife populations – to develop the website, which ultimately intends to help global scientists and policymakers with conservation decisions affecting the Antarctic environment.

The idea is to provide better information about those penguin populations in a region where human work has always been challenging – particularly in Antarctica’s most-remote areas – through the use of next-level tools like satellite imagery.

Satellites can’t track individual penguins or even migrating colonies, but can detect large guano stains left behind by nests – key evidence in tracking migratory shifts caused by environmental changes, and predicting new ones. Using these technologies, Lynch and her team have already located previously undiscovered penguin colonies, including some of the largest ever observed.

The website aggregates data from multiple sources, including keen-eyed tourists who, in summer months, actually outnumber scientists in the region and “can contribute important information through bird checklists and photographs,” according to SBU.

Website users, including laymen, can access all sorts of penguin-related data, including latest modeled population estimates.

While that’s a kick for casual penguin fans of every stripe, MAPPPD is actually designed to become a critical data hub for Antarctic penguin biologists, environmentalists and other representatives of science and government, according to Oceanites Founder and President Ron Naveen.

“MAPPPD will immediately assist a wide range of Antarctic stakeholders, from other researchers and governments to NGOs and the public at large,” Naveen said.


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