Scientists have finally discovered how to p-p-pick out a penguin and tell them apart from other members of their colony – using facial recognition technology.
Boffins from Bristol University have used hi-tech camera techniques to spot the unique patterns on the chests of individual penguins.
They hope the leap forward will mean the end of tagging the birds – amid fears the practice is damaging their health and even killing them.
A 10-year study in Antarctica found King penguins with the metal bands had 39 per cent fewer chicks and 16 per cent lower survival rates than those fitted with transponders.
The discovery prompted university researchers in Robben Island, South Africa, to use an automatic recognition system to records patterns of spots on the chests of adult birds.
Using digital photography, scientists were able to remotely monitor more than 90 per cent of the African penguins on the island.
The new system will help to eliminate the need to band penguins.
Prof Peter Barham, from the Earthwatch project at Bristol University, said the technique could help scientists while ensuring minimum interference with the penguins.
He said: “There have been several studies on the effect of banding on African penguins and Magellanics penguin, which have been unable to find any significant differences between banded and unbanded penguins when it comes to breeding success.
“There are however other impacts of banding which is one reason why we want to introduce the recognition system to replace banding where possible.
“From time to time, for example, we find African penguins trapped by their bands.”
Scientists developing the technique presented it to penguin researchers from around the world at a special conference in South Africa – attended by 37 penguin research groups.
A Bristol University spokesman said: “The technique is still being tested and refined.
“But eventually it may be possible to monitor remotely more than 90 per cent of the African penguins on the island.
“This automated system will help eliminate the need to band penguins, except for specific purposes such as measuring chick survival rates, when flipper bands still need to be used.”