Animals, News, Science

Robotic Chick Lets Researchers Get Close to Penguins

A small robot that looks and acts like a baby penguin is helping researchers study penguins in a more natural way.

When scientists study any animals in the wild, it usually means a human has to get close to them to gather information. But people make animals nervous, so when human researchers are around, the animals don’t act the way they normally would.

A team of scientists led by Yvon Le Maho, from the University of Strasbourg in France, wanted to find a way to study penguins in Antarctica without disturbing them or changing their natural behaviour.

In the first part of their experiment, they attached tiny heart-rate monitors to a group of king penguins so they could measure how fast their hearts were beating. When a penguin is experiencing stress, its heart beats faster.

When humans approached the penguins, the penguins moved away from them and moved into other penguins’ territories. That caused fighting and disorganization that affected the whole penguin colony.

Then the researchers sent a small, remote-controlled robot, or rover, in amongst the penguins. The rover was designed to read information from the monitors and send it back to the researchers.

Some of the penguins tried to attack the four-wheeled rover. Generally, however, the researchers found that the penguins’ heart rates increased less around the rover than they did when a human approached them. The signs of stress also went away more quickly.

Next, the researchers used the rover to study emperor penguins, which are extremely shy around humans.

They decided to disguise the rover to make it less noticeable. They tried five disguises and decided the penguins were the most relaxed when it looked like an emperor penguin chick.

The researchers covered the rover in soft grey fur and gave it black arms, a black and white face, and a black beak. When they sent it into the colony, the penguins did not run away from it or attack it. They allowed it to huddle with the other baby penguins, and some of the adults even called out to it the way they would to a real chick.

The rover made it possible for the scientists to gather information about the penguins without upsetting them or changing the way they behaved.

The researchers spent a year in Antarctica, working with a group of filmmakers who were making a documentary on penguins for British television.

The filmmakers helped design the penguin-chick rover. They also placed 50 “spy” cameras around the colony to film the birds with no humans around.

Ten of the cameras were hidden in “animatronic” robots (robots designed to look and act like penguins). Others were hidden in fake eggs that looked so realistic some adult penguins tried to hatch them and predators tried to steal them away.

Using the robots and spy cameras, the scientists were able to gather five times more information than they could have gathered on their own. They published the results of their experiment in a journal called Nature Methods.

Note: This article was updated on Nov. 13 with an adorable photo of the actual robot penguin chick, courtesy of Nature Methods. We also added a new paragraph (para. 5) with a bit more information.

Related sites

Facts about emperor penguins.

By Kathleen Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
When scientists begin an experiment, they often start with questions. What questions do you think they were trying to answer about the penguins?

Reading Prompt: Making Meaning/Interpreting Texts
Read the article and draw a picture of what you think the rover looks like. Make sure to include the details described in the article.

Now look at pictures of the rover using the related links at the end of the article. Was your drawing the same as the actual rover? How was it similar and how was it different?

Use stated and implied ideas in texts to make inferences and construct meaning (OME, Reading: 1.5)

Develop and explain interpretations of increasingly complex or difficult texts using stated and implied ideas from the texts to support their interpretations (OME, Reading: 1.5).

Language Feature: Portmanteau
A portmanteau combines the sounds and meanings of two words. For example, the word ‘animatronic’ is a portmanteau combines the words ‘animated’ and ‘electronic’. Similarly, ‘smog’ combines the words ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’.  Can you think of three other portmanteaus? What words do they combine to make the portmanteau?