There’s a catch to studying penguins in the wild: If researchers get too close, penguins get so stressed out that they may be less likely to successfully breed or hatch an egg. So an enterprising group of scientists designed a fleet of robots–in some cases, disguised as baby penguins–to help gather data instead.
When the researchers tested a small rover with a group of king penguins, the animals acted just as if a bird had passed by. Their heart rate didn’t go up as it would if a human appeared, and they were less likely to try to move their eggs to another spot.
Here’s the rover in action:
“We found quite easy to circulate into their territory, because birds would not be stressed by humans, they would simply wait for the rover to pass,” explains researcher Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg, lead author of a new paper in Nature Methods. “The challenges were technical–to have a rover that is robust, waterproof, and able to deal with salt and sand on the beach.”
The rover was able to drive up close enough to each penguin to scan a small transponder implanted under the penguin’s skin, and correctly identify it.
For emperor penguins, a species so shy that even the rover was stressful, the researchers added a fake, fuzzy penguin chick to the top of the rover as a disguise. The fake baby penguin was originally created by a film crew that collaborated with the researchers.
“They were using robotic fake animals to get better images–images that have not been shown before,” says Le Maho. “We wanted to use fake animals to get better scientific knowledge. We had a common interest.”
The fake baby penguin was able to get close to all of the emperor penguins and was so realistic that several of the penguins even chirped at it. The disguise wasn’t a toy, but was carefully designed to look as real as possible.
“What I learned is that the animal should be very, very well designed,” says Le Maho. “Because penguins are clever. For the fake animal to be confusing for them, it has to be very well done.”
The new technology will allow the researchers to gain data they’ve never had access to before.
“It opens a new area of research,” says Le Maho. “Clearly, to study what is going on with emperor penguins, how the colony is structured, we need to monitor individual birds. At this stage, humans are not allowed to enter into the colony, because it would be too disruptive. With the robotic penguin, we can study and investigate how the colony works.”
The researchers plan to use the robots to continue studying how climate change is affecting penguins. The robots could also be adapted for other kinds of animals and for other environments around the world.