Emperor penguin adults and chick with rover.

A rover camouflaged as a fake chick approaches an emperor penguin. Image: Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature methods (doi: 10.1038/nmeth.3173), copyright 2014

Written by Julia Cleghorn

Researchers have found a better way to study penguin behaviour – send in a remote-controlled rover! Compared with researchers collecting data themselves, rovers were found to be less disruptive to the colony, less stressful for the penguins, and sometimes a whole lot cuter to watch!

Animal scientists often need to approach their research subjects in the wild. But, this can be very disruptive to the animals and change their behaviour. If an animal behaves differently when people are around, it is hard for people to observe the animal’s natural behaviour.

An alternative approach

As an alternative, French researchers sent rovers into a penguin colony in Antarctica. The rovers used a radio-frequency identification (RFID) antenna to successful identify a colony of king penguins. But, the researchers really wanted to know whether the rovers affected the penguins more or less than a human observer.

To find out, the scientists first attached heart rate monitors to 34 incubating king penguins. Later on, they found that when a person was collecting data, the penguins’ heart rates rose four times more than when a rover was doing the same job. When people were nearby, fights broke out between penguins and the colony became disorganised. The rover caused much less disturbance to the colony than a person did.

Chick chic

The rover was also tested in a colony of emperor penguins. This time, the rover caused some distress. But, when the rover was disguised as a baby penguin chick, the birds allowed it to approach – and some even tried to communicate with it!

The researchers hope these promising results will be seen with other animals, and that the rovers can be used for other purposes, such as carrying recording devices to study animal sounds. For some animals, though, scientists will have to perfect their rover disguises first!

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One response

  1. Emma Avatar

    That picture is so cute. I cannot believe that the penguins actually fell for the little guy. I think the rover is adorable.

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