Penguin Robot Spies on Species


Studying wild animals or birds in their natural habitat has always been difficult for scientists. The presence of people around at best makes them nervous, at worst scares them. Either way, they are not likely to behave in their normal manner. But, a new solution is letting scientists get up close in animals’ natural habitats – robot versions of species, such as penguins, are serving as spies to infiltrate habitats and provide information about normally skittish creatures.

Scientists have found that using robotic animal rovers to check on easily frightened animals allow them to research the species in a less invasive manner than has been used before. It is also less stressful and disturbing for creatures like penguins and seals, according to a recent study. The findings, which can be found in Nature Methods, show that using a remote controlled rover to mingle with the animals allows researchers to collect more accurate information on the species’ behavior.

To determine whether rovers disguised as penguin chicks would help in studying penguin behavior, a global team of scientists, led by Yvon Le Maho of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, fitted 34 king penguins in Antarctica with external heart rate monitors. Le Maho has researched penguins for four decades,  and his work was seen in the movie March of the Penguins.

On an archipelago near Antarctica that is home to two-thirds of the world’s king penguins, Le Maho and his colleagues had put the monitors on bands around penguin flippers to better monitor and track them a few years ago. But the group found that the bands had a negative impact on the birds, slowing their speed in the water and the number of offspring produced.

The researchers they tried monitoring the penguins with tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that were implanted under their skin. However, to get a reading, a radio antenna needed to get within two feet of the penguin rookeries.

So, the researchers employed a small remote controlled robot rover to infiltrate the colony. A similar rover was previously used with and barely noticed by elephant seals. But the skittish penguins were alarmed and started pecking at the rover and squawking. The robot did get readings and the penguins eventually calmed down, as seen by their heart rate recovery.

Clearly a plain, mechanical looking robot did not allow the research team to study the shy emperor penguins without impacting the animals. So, their next approach was to disguise the rover as a penguin chick. Their first model, which was made out of fiberglass, scared the birds. Several other versions were developed and tried. Finally, the scientists came up with a rover that did not scare the penguins – a rover that looked like a real baby penguin covered in soft fuzz.

The new rover was a hit. The penguins were so comfortable with the new rover, which was essentially a stuffed animal version of a penguin, which they huddled with it. The adults even sang to it and seemed disappointed or puzzled when the robot penguin did not answer them.

The researchers believe their success in using a penguin robot as a tool that spies on the species can be used with other creatures. “Approaching animals with a rover can reduce impact,” according to the study’s authors. They enthusiastically feel that the technology can be employed “beyond terrestrial populations of seabirds or mammals, as rovers could be adapted for use in aquatic or aerial environments.”

By Dyanne Weiss

ABC Science Australia
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