Penguins are not just useful for pulling in millions of dollars at the box office, we learned. Apparently, they also come in quite handy as scientific researchers.

Researchers from Birmingham University are using king penguins to examine how over-fishing and global warming impact the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean. According to an article in the Independent, King penguins inhabit the subAntarctic islands on the northern reaches of the Southern Ocean, where, during the Austral winter (our summer), they breed. Then, in the Southern summer, they embark on a lengthy diving expedition to find food for themselves and their chicks. This double life makes them ideal research recruits. Halsey says: "You can get to them easily on land, equip them cheaply with a data-logging chip, and off they go into the ocean, leading us to the fish. They are also large and numerous, so they have a significant role in the ecosystem - effects felt by them will be felt by everything else."

But just how do you train a penguin to count fish? Halsey's experiments are based on the theory that by measuring the energy king penguins spend hunting for their favourite food - the lanternfish - you can calculate how many of them there are: the harder penguins have to work to find food, the fewer fish there are likely to be.

And not only are they useful, they also sound like ideal field assistants—they don’t grumble, expect a per diem, or ask for days off.

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Fish 'n chips
By studying the amount of energy penguins spend hunting, scientists get clues about the effects of over-fishing.