Most animals are skittish around people which makes observing them in the wild, a challenging endeavor for researchers. The issue is exacerbated with naturally shy creatures like emperor penguins, who show signs of physical distress in the presence of humans.
While scientists try their best to observe the birds from a distance, they sometimes have to get close to the Antarctic dwellers to obtain heart rate, temperature and movement pattern readings, from the data-detecting devices that have been implanted inside a select few. This makes the docile creatures so upset that they are often unable to successfully mate or lay eggs.
No one is more aware of the emperor penguin's anguish than Yvon Le Maho, who has been researching the majestic birds for 40 years. That is why about seven years ago, the French scientist embarked on a project to test if sending tiny robots to collect the required information would affect the penguins as adversely.
Le Maho and his team began by fitting 34 king penguins in Adelie Land, Antarctica with external heart rate monitors, which could be read using an RFID antenna from a distance of 60 centimeters. They then dispatched a team of plain, four-wheeled rovers into a colony of incubating penguins that were largely stationary because they were using their legs to protect eggs. (first video).
Though the penguins were a little alarmed and even squawked and pecked at the rover, they did allow it to read their heart monitors. Even more encouraging was the fact that as soon as the rover stopped moving, the penguins' heart rates returned to normal, much more rapidly than when humans entered the colony. The rover was even more effective amongst the massive elephant seals who hardly seemed to notice its existence.
However, for the extremely shy emperor penguins it was still too disturbing. After some brainstorming, the scientists decided to try disguise the rover as a penguin chick. Their first attempt with one made of fiberglass, failed miserably. Fortunately for Le Maho's team, a British production company working on a mini-documentary, was also trying infiltrate the penguin colony using camouflaged cameras. The two collaborated to create an adorable chick rover that the emperor penguins immediately embraced as one of their own.
Covered in soft fuzz just like a real baby emperor penguin, it is so convincing that the chicks huddle around it, just as they do with each other. The adults not only accept the rover, they even sing to it, and appear a little disappointed when the "chick" doesn't respond - an omission the scientists plan to rectify with the next batch of robo-penguins. Not surprisingly, the penguins show almost no stress as the adorable spy waddles around the colony, gathering all kinds of information about their day-to-day lives.
Le Maho, who published his study entitled "Rovers minimize human disturbance in research on wild animals", in the scientific journal Nature methods on November 2nd, plans to continue using the robots to study how climate change is affecting penguins. He also believes that similar rovers could be adapted to observe other animals in their natural habitat.
Resources: fastcoexist.com, cnet.com,npr.org