Peter Wilson, a marine biologist, said yesterday that New Zealand and US scientists were seeking funding to install weighbridges at an Adelie penguin rookery near US McMurdo Station.
'It's not as outrageous as it sounds,' Mr Wilson said of the plan to tag and then automatically weigh each bird as it crosses the bridge. Mr Wilson said scientists suspect a link between the penguins' improving fortunes and the volume of water - and number of fish - in nearby Lake Vanda. Fed by glacial meltwater, the lake thaws in summer and freezes in winter.
'Since 1981, about the same time as we started recording the increase in penguin numbers, this lake level has also been rapidly rising,' Mr Wilson said. 'Not only that, it's quite accurately tracked the rise and the two years of fall in our Adelie penguin population before it's tracked up again over the past two years.
'We think it may be a very accurate barometer of the overall increase in warming in that area.'
Mr Wilson said that if the lake level continued to rise, it would indicate that some factor, such as global warming, was at work. Tempting though the theory is, however, the scientists are far from home and dry. Fluctuations in some animal populations represent classic examples of the mathematical 'chaos' theory, making it difficult to link cause and effect. In addition, the efforts of the world's whaling nations have effectively removed the largest predators of fish from the seas around Antarctica, leaving an ecological niche for smaller animals, such as penguins.