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Researchers have now come up with an alternative to studying wild animals without stressing them out: sending in a remote-controlled robot equipped with a scanning device with the ability to collect all sorts of data on the focal animal and then transmit it into the ether. Testing this method out on king penguins, they reveal that it is likely to be a whole lot less stressful for the animals.
International scientists and even filmmakers, led by Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France, created a remote control rover disguised as a chick to snuggle up to shy penguins in Adelie Land, Antarctica, the same place where the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins was filmed.
When approached by a human, for instance, a penguin’s heart rate increased by an average of 35 beats per minute. When the rover came at it, its heart rate also increased, but only by around 24 beats per minute. In addition, a human caused the target penguin to move much more than the rover. With the robot, the penguins were also much quicker to return to their original physiological state.
Researchers tried about five versions until they hit upon the right one. It’s covered in gray fur, sports black arms, and has a black-and-white painted face and black beak. The penguins didn’t scamper away and even sang to it with “a very special song like a trumpet,” Le Maho said. But he also suggested that the adult penguins were trying to find a mate for their chicks and they were listening for a response, but researchers didn’t program the rover to make a sound.
The researchers believe their success in using a penguin robot as a tool that spies on the species can be used with other creatures. “Approaching animals with a rover can reduce impact,” according to the study’s authors. They enthusiastically feel that the technology can be employed “beyond terrestrial populations of seabirds or mammals, as rovers could be adapted for use in aquatic or aerial environments.”
This will assist the researchers in making more improvements to the rover. The next one they send out will be programmed with “special” penguin songs. That way the baby can communicate back to the adults, and possibly assist in gathering more research.
The findings were published in the Nature Methods journal on Sunday, and it highlights some of the future uses for the rover. They intend to install devices to read radio signals from tagged Emperor Penguins.