PenguinBot Infiltrates Penguin Colony…
One of the most crucial ways of understanding the way certain animals behave is to study them in their natural environment. But even the most passive act of observation can change the way an animal behaves.
Take penguins, for example. In the past, scientists attached transponders to the wings of penguins, to monitor the birds. These transponders were able to send signals over long distances. Unfortunately, the devices inhibited the penguins’ ability to swim, ultimately impairing hunting and breeding.
Nowadays, a tiny chip can be inserted under the skin of an animal, as anyone with a microchipped pet will know. But these chips have a much shorter transmission range than the transponders, only 60cm (24in). This means that scientists have to enter penguin colonies to collect the information they need.
Normally, when a human approaches a penguin, the creature’s heart rate increases by an average 35 beats per minute, indicating that the animal is stressed. The animals also moved around a lot more than they would have done without human interference.
But a team of scientists from the University of Strasbourg in France have developed a way of monitoring the birds that is a lot less invasive for them, and have published their findings in Nature Methods.
The method involves sending a remote-controlled robot – or rover – into a group of animals that have previously been chipped with an electronic identification tag for population research. The rover is equipped with scanning devices able to scan the chips, collecting all sorts of information about the animal, and then transmit the data to the scientists. All the while, the team is able to remain 200m (650ft) away from the animals.
When the rover was tested on a group King penguins, while the animals’ heart rates did increase, it was only up to an average of 24 more beats a minute. The penguins were also more likely to quieten down and return to their original physiological state with the rover. So, the King penguins appeared to reluctantly accept the rover, but they did nonetheless.
But when the researchers decided to see what would happen when the rover was introduced to a group of Emperor penguins instead, many were wary.
To overcome this nervousness, the team decided to dress the rover as a penguin chick – and so PenguinBot was born!
Now, along with all the technical stuff, the rover features a downy-like fluffy body. It also sports flippers, and a face and beak painted in the distinct colours of an Emperor penguin, all perched on a small frame with four wheels so that it might move freely.
And when PenguinBot brazenly entered a huddle of real penguin chicks, right under the noses – or beaks – of the adults, they paid it no more attention than one of their own.
“When the rover was camouflaged with a penguin model, all adult and chick Emperor penguins allowed it to approach close enough for electronic identification,” explained Dr Le Maho. “Chicks and adults were even heard vocalising at the camouflaged rover.”
Because the rover was doing all of the up-close-and-personal work, the researchers were able to maintain such a distance so as to not cause the penguins any undue stress.
While even a disguised rover probably won’t work in every setting – some animals are a lot more wary than others – it certainly means that we can learn about a wider range of animal behaviour, as well as providing wonderful photographic opportunities.