A wheeled rover disguised as a penguin chick is allowing zoologists to read the heart rates of king penguins in Antarctica.
Most wild animals are understandably wary of humans. Which can make studying them hard for zoologists and documentary makers alike. That anxiety may be increased after they've been captured and fitted with monitors as some of the penguins of Adelie Land have been. Unfortunately, to read the monitors Dr Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg needed to get within 60cms of the penguins, or find a way to get a reception device in to that distance.
To achieve this, Le Maho reveals in Nature Methods he put an antenna on a four wheel drive device and sent it into colonies of several local species. Unsurprisingly, the elephant seals were entirely unperturbed, barely noticing the device. King penguins pecked at the rover, but once it stopped they calmed down and their heart rates rapidly returned to normal. "Upon immobilization, the rover—unlike humans—did not disorganize colony structure, and stress rapidly ceased," the paper reports.
Emperor penguins, despite their great size, are shyer than their smaller cousins, so Le Mahodecided it was time to take a step up by adding a fiberglass penguin chick. Things did not go smoothly however. The first chick was unconvincing, and possibly fell into the penguin version of uncanny valley, leading to some frightened emperors.
Only after five variations was the chick sufficiently feathered up to stop scaring the locals. At this point, the response shifted entirely. Baby penguins, undetered by the wheels, huddled up against the chick.
Frederique Olivier/John Downer Productions, Le Maho et al., Nature Methods. Once accepted as unthreating, the robopenguin was welcomed into the huddle's warmth.
The adults even sang to it. "They were very disappointed when there was no answer," Le Maho said. "Next time we will have a rover playing songs."
Sure beats the dungcam the BBC used to get into an elephant herd.
Responses to the undisguised rover can be seen in this video: