Who doesn’t love penguins?

Penguins on Film
Public lecture at Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol, 4 September

Tim and I (mostly Tim) have a small obsession with Antartica. When we went to Cambridge last year a visit to the Scott Polar Museum was a must, higher even than the Wren Library (only just). We have amassed a small collection of books about the continent and record every TV programme about it.

Some books about Antarctica

I can’t speak for Tim, but for me one of the attractions of Antarctica is undoubtedly penguins. (Yes yes, I know they live elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere too, even hot places. You can blame film for the association of penguins only with the extreme cold. Apparently.) They are brilliantly characterful animals. However hard you try not to anthropomorphise, watching them waddle along is unfailingly funny. Yet in water they are hypnotically elegant.

Clearly I am not alone in this love. Tonight’s lecture “Penguins on Film” was actually part of the 8th International Penguin Conference but was open to the general public and between the two interest groups the (pretty magnificent) Great Hall at the Wills Building was crammed full. The panellists gave five short talks about some very different experiences of penguins.

emperor penguin
Image source

The main presenter was Lloyd Davis, a world authority on penguins and engaging speaker to boot. He talked about how some misconceptions and misinformation about penguins stem from and are perpetuated by film, from the earliest footage 100 years ago by Frank Hurley (comedic, unnatural behaviour) to March of the Penguins (models of family values? Penguins don’t mate for life, they pick a new partner every season and aren’t necessarily faithful to that one) and many a cartoon in-between (inaccurate habitats or mixes of species).

While this was all a lot of fun, I kinda already knew all this and there’s an extent to which the portrayal of penguins as comedic does some good in engaging public interest. As the rest of the presenters proved, you can use penguins as a starting point to talk about climate change, how science is done, filming techniques and even new robotics technology.

Elizabeth White from the BBC Natural History Unit talked about some of the challenges of filming penguins for the TV series Frozen Planet. It was fantastic to see some clips from that show on a cinema-sized screen and in retrospect it showed the real contrast between BBC footage and basically anyone else!

The tough job of following that fell to Sue Murray of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust who showcased a video made in 1939 by amateur ornithologist Lance Richdale of an endangered penguin species that led both to the charity that works to protect the birds and also to a tourism industry that generates millions of dollars for a remote part of New Zealand. Sadly it’s a more interesting story than film, though it was fun to see Richdale’s wife weighing penguin chicks like you might a human baby.

Phil Trathan from the British Antarctic Survey spoke about how he and a colleague used satellite imagery and aerial photography to identify penguin colonies and to track changes in those colonies over the last five years. It was interesting to hear that, while initially his work led to a doubling of the estimated number of emperor penguins (because satellites can see areas basically inaccessible by land), it has also revealed the loss of whole colonies where sea ice is drastically reduced year on year as a result of climate change.

Finally, Bristol University’s very own Peter Barham and Tilo Burghardt demonstrated how the spycams embedded in penguin robots created for the TV series The Spy in the Huddle have been adapted for scientific research uses such as identifying what species of penguin it is looking at or even recognising individual African penguins by the pattern of spots on their chests. Sadly they didn’t have time to explain why this is useful (here’s a video Peter Barham made earlier), though they did find time for a fun demo of the robot’s new ability to recognise human emotions by getting a volunteer up on stage to pull faces at the spycam. No doubt this too will have extrapolations for biological research. If only there had been more than an hour!

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