Robots infiltrate penguin colonies in the cutest way possible

Frederique Olivier/John Downer Productions, Le Maho et al., Nature Methods

Baby penguins are universally adored, but studying them without stressing them remains a challenge.  New research allows researchers to observe penguins in their natural habitats-by becoming a penguin in disguise.  By dressing up an RFID capable (similar to a swipe card) robot as a baby penguin, scientists are able to study the behavior of penguins and other animals without disturbing them.

A major challenge of animal observation studies can be the actual researchers.  Understandably, many animals fear a large, unfamiliar creature invading their habitat and alter their behavior, making it difficult to accurately study animals at close range.  In the newest issue of Nature Methods, scientists used remote-operated vehicles disguised as chicks to study king penguins, emperor penguins, and elephant seals, leading to less stress and lower impact on these animal groups.

Researchers from the University of Strasbourg in France wanted to discover a better way to investigate wild animal populations without disturbing them, which can lead to inaccurate scientific studies (as well as feeling bad for scaring penguins).  Since heart rate is a known indicator of stress in colonial animals like penguins, they attached king penguins with heart monitors and recording devices and set out to compare responses to humans vs. rovers approaching the colony.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, penguins prefer being approached by a small rover instead of a human that is much larger than them.  Not only did heart rates increase less when approached by a rover, but they were less likely to move their eggs or chicks, another stress response found in breeding penguins.  Additionally, especially with the hatchling-disguised rover, their behavior was more likely to be positive (like interest or tolerance) as opposed to the fear or defense mechanisms showed when approached by humans.

The emperor penguin that many visualize when thinking “penguin,” also had a similar behavioral response to the king penguin.  Many of them even vocalized at the baby penguin-disguised robot, assuming it was one of their own.  Penguins are not the only animal that could benefit from the robot in disguise approach.  Elephant seals normally have strong reactions to humans approaching their tails, which makes tagging these enormous mammals difficult.  However, in a preliminary study, the seals were not disturbed by a rover approaching their tail.

This new method of researching animals is not only adorable, but has positive implications for the ability to compare animals across different groups.  This would allow researchers to compare a truly wild population to those examined in experimental conditions, leading to greater accuracy and better conclusions.  Plus, think of all the adorable pictures like the one above!


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