Robot spies on shy penguins
Robot spies on shy penguins A remote-controlled roving camera camouflaged as a penguin chick in Adelie Land, Antarctica (AP Photo / Frederique Olivier, Downer Productions)
Robot spies on shy penguins
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The newest tool for biologists is the baby penguin robotic spy.

It's pretty darn cute, and so convincing that penguins essentially talk to it, as if it is a potential mate for their young chicks.

Emperor penguins are notoriously shy. When researchers approach, these penguins normally back away and their heart rate goes up. That's not what the scientists need when they want to check heart rate, health and other penguin parameters.

So international scientists and even filmmakers, led by Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France, created a remote control rover disguised as a chick to snuggle up to shy penguins in Adelie Land, Antarctica the same place where the 2005 documentary "March of the Penguins" was filmed.

Researchers watched from more than 650 feet away.

The first disguised version of the rover, made of fiberglass, didn't pass muster and scared the real birds, Le Maho said.

Researchers tried about five versions until they hit upon the right one. It's covered in gray fur, sports black arms, and has a black-and-white painted face and black beak.

The penguins didn't scamper away and even sang to it with "a very special song like a trumpet," Le Maho said.

Le Maho suggested that the adult penguins were trying to find a mate for their chicks and they were listening for a response, but researchers didn't program the rover to make a sound.

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

At other times, the rover crowded in with a group of chicks, acting as "a spy in the huddle," Le Maho said.

There's a reason scientists want to use rovers. Some, but not all, researchers worry that just by coming close to some shy animals they change their behavior and can taint the results of their studies, Le Maho said.

Le Maho also used a rover without any animal disguise to spy on king penguins and elephant seals because those animals don't flee strangers. The king penguins attacked the small rover with their beaks, unless it stayed still, but that still allowed the device to get close enough to get readings. The large lumbering elephant seals didn't budge when the rover zipped by and around them.

Critical thinking challenge: Why did researchers watch from more than 650 feet away?

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Assigned 63 times

  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    11/06/2014 - 10:00 a.m.

    I think that this is a great improvement to our technology. To watch and see how other animals are developing, we should create a type of "spy" for each type of animal family.

  • SAlexander-Sti
    11/06/2014 - 03:55 p.m.

    scientist use a robotic penguin to record other penguins to have them talk to it, get a heart rate from other penguins, and to see how the penguins react. The scientist watch from more than 650 feet away about a mile!

  • KeaganB-1
    11/06/2014 - 11:45 p.m.

    Researchers are using robotic spy's to spy on penguins. The researchers had to try lots of different penguin outfits to get the penguins to take in the robotic one. The researchers had to do this because the penguins they were trying to study were very shy. The robotic penguin could get close to the penguins without the penguins leaving. The robotic penguin was so real to the penguins the real ones were trying to mate with it. I found this article very cool and interesting.

  • devonm-3
    11/07/2014 - 12:53 a.m.

    Rovers are used to watch and learn about Emperor Penguins. These penguins are very shy towards humans and act different when around them. Causing a different scientific view instead of a view of a natural penguin. Scientists have constructed a rover that looks like a penguin to get a closer look at the creatures with out scaring them. The rover is liked by the birds. Some like to talk to it buts not programmed to talk back. This tool must help scientists a lot. Getting a closer look at animals with out disturbing them is great. It helps people get more accurate results and is better for the animal.

  • jarredc-Koc
    11/07/2014 - 03:36 p.m.

    Technology continues to astound the world. In today's world scientists can study animals that are violent and animals that are shy from afar. They allow animals to behave as they normally would and it does not affect their behavior. This is just the beginning of what technology will do for us. Each generation will add something to this technology and it will continue to expand.

  • RAnthony-Cas
    11/08/2014 - 06:46 p.m.

    I think the penguin Rover was a great invention because a lot of penguins are scared when researchers or sciences approach them, so the fact that there's a little rover penguin that can get close to them is great because scientists can understand penguins better.

  • jadayciao
    11/09/2014 - 05:44 p.m.

    There is a little robot penguin that helps other penguins. Penguins talk to the robot RIHGT away. This is only usually for emperor penguins, Because they are so shy. Researchers watch from 650 feet away or more because they are so shy.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    11/10/2014 - 10:49 a.m.

    I'm kind of surprised that the Emperor penguins didn't notice that the rover had wheels and did not walk like the rest of the penguins. It's like a robot version of a penguin. I hope the adult penguins don't take the rover in as one of their own once they add the noises to it. That would just be sad making the penguin think it was taking care of a real live animal when at some point scientists would come take it away.

  • NashMcComsey-Ste
    11/10/2014 - 01:12 p.m.

    Truly a novel idea. Quite hilarious to observe, but if something like that works, then it works. It's difficult to argue with success. I only hope the best for their studies of the fragile flightless birds.

  • TiffanyA-Pay
    11/10/2014 - 02:09 p.m.

    I think the researchers watched from more than 650 feet away because the penguins would be very shy. They could be scared of the people and it might cause them to run around frantically if they saw people they didn't recognize. The penguins would probably run away and hide. And since their heart rate would go up (according to the article) by seeing the researchers, it would affect their health and not be very good for them if they got extremely scared.

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