Emperor penguins are actually quite shy. In fact, the presence of humans in their habitat can make them nervous, altering how they would usually behave. Therefore, it is difficult for scientists to get an accurate reading on the penguins’ behavior. Fortunately, the problem was solved by disguising a rover as a baby emperor penguin.
CNET reports that in order to determine how useful rovers are in studying penguin behavior, an international team led by Yvon Le Maho at the University of Strasbourg, France, fitted 34 king penguins in Adelie Land, Antarctica with external heart rate monitors that could be monitored using an RFID antenna, which needs to get within 60 centimeters to get a reading.
Next, after the birds had recovered, the team sent a plain, four-wheeled rover into the colony of incubating penguins — where the males are mostly stationary as they keep the eggs safe on top of their feet. Although the penguins responded with some alarm, squawking and pecking at the rover, they allowed it to get close enough to read their heart monitors, and when the rover stopped moving, their heart rates recovered more rapidly than if a human had entered the colony.
For emperor penguins, which are very shy, a plain rover wasn’t going to cut it, so the team decided to disguise it as a penguin chick. The first version, made of fiberglass, scared the birds. The disguise went through about five iterations before the researchers designed a version that didn’t scare the penguins — one covered in soft fuzz like a real baby penguin.
Scientists noted that the baby penguin disguise worked so well that both the baby chicks and adults included the rover as if it were real. The baby chicks huddled against it as they do each other, and the adults sang to it, appearing disappointed when it didn’t answer back.
The study also tested out the rover, without disguise, on elephant seals. The 7,000 plus creatures didn’t seem to mind the rover, even when it approached their tail area. However, if a human scientists approaches the tail of a seal, the reaction is strong. This shows that the rover will need to be retrofitted based on the type of animal being studied. Creatures that are more skittish around outside influences may require a rover with a believable disguise, whereas creatures like the elephant seal may be able to be studied up close with a basic rover.
Wired notes that the rovers have already been used in Antarctica to monitor climate change, but without the penguin disguise. However, with the disguise, the possibilities of scientific research are endless. Some of the ideas that the research team has discussed includes monitoring vocal data of the penguins.