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Cute Chick Rover Spies on Shy Emperor Penguins

Nov 03, 2014 10:55 AM EST
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chick rover with Emperor penguins
As part of a unique study, researchers are using a cute chick rover to spy on notoriously shy Emperor penguins in Antarctica, according to recent research.
(Photo : Le Maho, et. al.)

As part of a unique study, researchers are using a cute chick rover to spy on notoriously shy Emperor penguins in Antarctica, according to recent research.

Normally, when researchers attempt to learn the ins and outs of an Emperor penguin's daily life, the flightless birds back away and their heart rate increases when approached by people. This makes for inaccurate data when looking at heart rate, health and other penguin parameters. That's where this remote-controlled robotic chick comes into play.

The penguin look-alike, created by an international team of scientists led by Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France, went behind enemy lines to snuggle up to bashful birds in Adelie Land, Antarctica. Covered in gray fur and sporting black arms, a black-and-white painted face and black beak, the penguin on wheels was so convincing that Emperor penguins even talked and sang to it.

"They were very disappointed when there was no answer," Le Maho told The Associated Press. "Next time we will have a rover playing songs."

It took researchers five attempts to create a rover that did not scare the penguins, including a version made of fiberglass. But finally they landed on a robot that eventually was accepted into the Emperor penguin colony as one of their own.

(Photo : Yvon Le Maho et al. Nature Methods)

Reporting the results in the journal Nature Methods, the research team says that using remotely operated vehicles to conduct studies on wild animals in their natural habitat is a less invasive approach and doesn't stress out the animals. If a human approached the penguins, for example, the fright would raise their heart rates by up to 35 beats per minute.

"When approached by a remote-operated vehicle (rover) which can be equipped to make radio-frequency identifications, wild penguins had significantly lower and shorter stress responses (determined by heart rate and behavior) than when approached by humans," the authors wrote. "Upon immobilization, the rover - unlike humans - did not disorganize colony structure, and stress rapidly ceased."

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