Remote-controlled rover doesn’t spook penguins

Compared with human scientists, robots offer a less obtrusive way to get close to critters

rover disguised as emperor penguin chick

TROJAN PENGUIN  An emperor penguin and chick watch a disguised rover roll up to them. The rover helps collect data without stressing the animals.

Y. Le Maho et al/Nature Methods 2014

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Skittish penguins let their guard down when researchers send a fluffy “robochick” into their midst. The approaching rover causes the animals less stress than humans do and may prove useful in studies of other wild populations, researchers report November 2 in Nature Methods.

One way scientists can monitor wild animals is by slipping a tag under the skin that a radio-frequency reader identifies. To recognize the tags, a reader must get within 60 centimeters of the animals. No matter how unobtrusively scientists try to sidle up to them, animals still get spooked.

To test a less jarring alternative, researchers sent a remote-controlled rover into colonies of penguins and elephant seals in Antarctica and the Crozet Archipelago. The team equipped king penguins with heart rate monitors, and then measured how the birds reacted and how much their heart rates increased when the rover and humans approached.

When a person come close, “all the birds facing the human will retreat very slowly with a high heart rate,” says coauthor Yvon Le Maho, a biologist at the University of Strasbourg in France.

But when the rover trundled up, the penguins stayed calm. “The increase in heart rate is about the same as when another bird is passing by, which means they are not stressed by the rover,” says Le Maho.

The researchers also sent the rover to infiltrate a colony of emperor penguins. Initially, these penguins were shy and retreated. So the researchers came up with a disguise: a fake penguin chick. Emperor penguins not only allowed the masked rover to approach, they even tried to vocalize to it and let it join a huddle of chicks.

Elephant seals also let the rover draw near, the researchers found. 

SOOTHING THE SKITTISH BEAST  Penguins investigate a rover rolling through their territory but do not retreat, while elephant seals do not appear to react at all. Credit: Le Maho et al.

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