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Spot the Penguin

Donning the penguin apron

Donning the penguin apron © Royal Society

© Royal Society

1 June 2009

An exciting interactive exhibit about cutting-edge research pulls in the punters.

An interactive exhibit linking computer science and conservation helped bring research to life for MPs, policy makers, members of the public and school children at the 2008 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. Visitors had the chance to don a penguin-patterned apron and find out first-hand how technology can be used to identify individual animals from their unique colour patterns – thereby minimising any disruption to the penguins’ lives that might be caused by more usual catch and tag approaches to identification. When wearing a specific penguin apron, each person was identified by the computer as ‘Percy’, ‘Pippa’, or ‘Peter Penguin’ etc., all from a real-time video stream.

The display showed videos of wild penguins being tracked and demonstrated the software which identified patterns on penguins along similar lines to a biometric passport reader.

“The software was designed to recognise unique chest patterns on penguins, which would otherwise be caught and fitted with a metal identification ring on the flipper” said Peter Barham, part of the project team. “Using this technology reduces any the welfare impact of our research on the penguins dramatically, as well as increasing the quantity and quality of population data by orders of magnitude.”

The Summer Exhibition, which lasts over four days, attracts several thousand visitors each year including scientists, policy makers, the media, businesses and the general public. This year, the stand was even visited by members of the Royal Family and UK Government ministers. Faced with such a diverse and varied audience, the exhibitors had to be prepared to talk about their subject at all levels but they were also well equipped with handouts about the research which visitors could take home with them.

Innes Cuthill, another project team member, said: “I've done talks in schools and for natural history societies, where the background knowledge for the target group is pretty similar. At the Summer Exhibition, the conversation would generally start from the same place each time, but could go anywhere." The project also caught the attention of the media, generating a large amount of international coverage in specialist and mainstream press, including print and online versions of broadsheets, the New Scientist and BBC Radio.

Further information

Project team members Professors Innes Cuthill and Peter Barham can be contacted by email: and

Further information about the project is available on the Visual Information Laboratory website.

Research update
The software was first tested on still images and birds in Bristol Zoo Gardens. A wireless monitoring system is currently being deployed to monitor the 15,000-strong penguin population on Robben Island, South Africa.