The newest tool for biologists is the baby penguin robotic spy.
It’s pretty darn cute, and so convincing that penguins essentially talk to it, as if it is a potential mate for their chicks.
Emperor penguins are notoriously shy. When researchers approach, these penguins normally back away and their heart rate goes up. That’s not what the scientists need when they want to check heart rate, health and other penguin parameters.
So 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.
Researchers watched from more than 200 metres away.
The first disguised version of the rover, made of fibreglass, didn’t pass muster and scared the real birds, Le Maho said.
Researchers tried about five versions until they hit upon the right one – covered in grey fur, sporting black arms, and 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.
Le Maho 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.
“They were very disappointed when there was no answer,” Le Maho said. “Next time we will have a rover playing songs.”
At other times, the rover crowded in with a group of chicks, acting as “a spy in the huddle”, Le Maho said.
There’s a reason scientists want to use rovers. Some, but not all, researchers worry that just by coming close to some shy animals they change their behaviour and can taint the results of their studies, Le Maho said.
The study is published Sunday by the journal Nature Methods.
Not quite as cute, but just as effective, Penguin researchers from the Australian Antarctic Division have used electronic scanning equipment on the ice for more than two decades as part of a “gateway” project, biologist Colin Southwell said.
“We have already collected some 25 years worth of data looking at survival ages and mortality rates of birds,” Dr Southwell told AAP.
The gateway is placed at a point along the penguins’ migration path and picks up a signal from a subcutaneous chip in the bird as they pass.
“This has been effective for us with certain species of bird and the rover is proving successful for other species which don’t follow the same route,” Dr Southwell said.