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Penguin study

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Funding is a dilemma researchers always face. Luckily for one local scientist, private funding paved the way from San Diego to the South Pole, with the benefit of using new technology that's cutting down on time in the field with better accuracy. In this week's earth 8 we bring you part 2 of the science behind this penguin study.

Senior research scientist Dr. Brent Stewart hopes to answer many important questions about several penguin species living on the South Pole.

When you're surrounded by hundreds of thousand of birds, the only way to get a better count is to fly high above them. As we showed you in part one of this series, a drone-like aircraft was used to collect more precise scientific data.

"What I really like about it is it can be a stable platform rather than flying over very quickly, we can hover. We can quickly move it in one direction, spin it around to get different perspectives," Stewart said. "But it's going to take another month, two months to count each bird at the two colonies. The big ones, the king penguins St. Andrews Bay, Salsbury Plains, they're probably 200,000 to 300,000 birds at each one of those colonies."

Although it looks crowded, Stewart says some colonies are not doing as well as others.

"Adelie penguins on the peninsula, we know that their populations are changing very rapidly as the climate there changes very rapidly. But other species are coming in and doing very well, so there are local colonies which are sustaining and are vital and other colonies are declining," he said.

Aside from a variable climate, penguins will always have natural predators.

"For Antarctic penguins, leopard seals are predators, they eat them. Particularly in the peninsula, killer whales, I think the ultimate predators are parasites which they're always dealing with. Infectious disease is a key issue in their population, biology. But it's really leopard seals and killer whales are their primary predators other than humans used to be.

"We're starting to plan for the next season next year for the Antarctic trip. Locally it's elephant seal season that's coming up in December, so I spend a lot of time out in San Nicholas & San Miguel Islands to study populations there, and we're trying to use the same kind of tools to help us with that," Stewart said.

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