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The Penguinologist’s Life

How a fake job title spurred a public rally to help imperiled penguins.

The term penguinologist is not scientific, but Oxford University penguin researcher Tom Hart is happy to have played a part in it going viral.

In 2011, Hart did an interview with BBC News at the London Zoo that used “penguinologist” in the on-screen graphic. A screengrab of that interview got picked up by the Telegraph for a list of the UK’s coolest jobs, and the term gew in popularity from there.

It might not be the real title, but the ensuing enthusiasm is a good thing for penguins, penguin researchers, and the penguin-loving portions of the public.


Penguins are most identified with the coldest continent, but the threats they face—climate change, pollution, and human competition for fish—are global. To fully assess these global threats, Hart and his Oxford colleague Fiona Jones say in the video above, they need to study many penguin colonies at once, setting up more than 100 remote cameras that snap 8,000 pictures a year. And to process that data, they need the help of citizen scientists—amateurs at home—who want to lend a hand to a penguinologist and keep an eye on “every adult, every chick, and every egg,” Hart says. “People enjoy being useful, and they are.”

You can be useful too, if you choose: Head here to learn how to annotate photos of penguin colonies and help scientists like Jones and Hart. Those annotations not only provide data, they also help train machine-learning algorithms so that one day, a computer can learn to recognize a penguin the same way your smartphone recognizes human faces. Still, Jones says she values the two-way communication between researchers and the public.

Which is another reason why they like the term penguinologist. The more scientifically accurate title is spheniscidaeologist, but it hardly rolls off the tongue.