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Robotic Baby Penguin Helps Scientists Study Real Penguins Without Causing Stress

If there’s one thing we know for certain it’s that birds absolutely hate the recent influx of drones invading the skies.

Do a quick search on YouTube and you can see many videos of birds attacking the robots. Yahoo has an article with a variety of these attacks, but here’s a quick gif to give you the idea.

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Another recent article points out that a company is hoping to sell the Bionic Bird, which is a drone that flaps and looks like a bird. I can’t imagine real birds will be too happy about that either.

But with all the robots seemingly working against the birds, there’s one robot that is doing good for birds: the baby penguin rover.

Traditionally, it’s been difficult to observe and study penguins in the Antarctic for a number of reasons. Not only does the harsh weather make it hard but tagging the birds with radio-frequency tags can stress them out. Also, the information scientists can get from tags is very limiting.

However, with this remote-controlled rover that looks convincingly like a baby penguin (except for four wheels underneath), scientists can quietly and without fanfare observe penguin colonies.

PHOTOGRAPH BY NATURE METHODS, LE MAHO, ET. AL
PHOTOGRAPH BY NATURE METHODS, LE MAHO, ET. AL

If you think this is too invasive and stressful to the penguin, scientists have done tests to make sure it isn’t. When a penguin saw an approaching human, its heart rate increased four times more than usual but when it saw the robot (then undisguised), it was much less stressed. With the disguise on, penguins are so convinced that it is a real penguin, they actually try to communicate with it.

Here’s an excerpt written by the researchers explaining a bit more:

To more broadly assess the utility of such rovers in colonial breeding birds, we tested the effect of rover approaches on emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri), which are nonterritorial inside their colonies. Of the 158 birds tested, 44 individuals (28%) reacted with alertness, and the tests were immediately halted; 75 (47%) displayed no reaction at all; and 39 (25%) demonstrated curiosity toward the rover by approaching and investigating it. But when the rover was camouflaged with a penguin model, all adult and chick emperor penguins allowed it to approach close enough for an electronic identification. Chicks and adults were even heard vocalizing at the camouflaged rover, and it was able to infiltrate a crèche without disturbance.

Still, despite the fact that there are limitations, this rover will significantly reduce the invasiveness of scientists while gathering enough information to help study the effects climate change is having on the birds.

Here’s a short video of the penguin rover in action.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.