Watch This Robot Penguin Chick Mingle With the Real Emperors of Antarctica

Scientists put penguin monitoring on wheels, reducing stress levels humans cause when approaching shy emperor penguin colonies.
Nov 3, 2014·
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

What’s a robot doing dressed as a fluffy penguin chick? Trying to blend in, of course.

The undercover rover was developed to give researchers up-close-and-personal access to the shy emperor penguins in Adélie Land, Antarctica, without the need for human interaction.

The camouflaged instruments researchers built are so good that the typically shy penguins have started cozying up to the fake-feathered chick—even singing to it.

"They were very disappointed when there was no answer," University of Strasburg scientist Yvon Le Maho told Phys.org.

Now that they’ve gained the penguins' trust, researchers believe they’ll be better equipped to study the animals' behavior without stressing them out, and that means more accurate readings. Le Maho and a team of scientists published their findings Monday in the journal Nature Methods.

In one study, 34 king penguins were outfitted with heart rate monitors to measure the stress level of the birds when humans came in close contact with them, compared with an autonomous rover. Scientists conducted the test with an undisguised remote-controlled rover that the territorial penguins attacked when it came close. Still, the animals' heart rates were much lower than when humans approached.

In a second study, the rover was cloaked with penguin garb and introduced to a less territorial but much more shy emperor penguin colony. Researchers found no negative response from the penguin colony. The disguised rover was able to get within two feet of the penguins without noticeably disturbing them, and it even infiltrated a crèche, where chicks huddle together to keep warm.

Soon, adults were heard calling to the rover chick. La Maho told The Associated Press the adults could have been looking for a mate for their young chicks. “Next time, we will have a rover playing songs,” La Maho said.

But why do they need to get so close to study the penguins in the first place?

Some penguins in the Adélie Land colony have had microchips planted in them to monitor their behavior and vital signs. To gather data, a remote sensor must get within two feet of the penguin. With the new rovers, the penguins are being saved from the unnecessary stress of human interaction, which can raise their heart rates.

“The relevance of this technology extends beyond terrestrial populations of seabirds or mammals, as rovers could be adapted for use in aquatic or aerial environments,” the study states.

The scientists observed that the rover zipped by elephant seals while monitoring the penguins, and they didn’t bat an eye. “This is notable, as elephant seals generally react strongly when humans approach their tails,” according to the study.