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
Lexile: 940L

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The newest tool for biologists is the baby penguin robotic spy.

It's pretty darn cute. And it is 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. 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. It's disguised as a chick to snuggle up to shy penguins in Adelie Land, Antarctica. That is 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. It 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. It 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. 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 209 times

  • sawyers-Fra
    11/06/2014 - 10:28 a.m.

    I think that is very cool that they made it to work. It must be very fun for those researchers to be like a penguin kinda.

  • Cynth13
    11/06/2014 - 10:49 a.m.

    In this story "Robot Spy's on Shy Penguins" is all about how shy penguins are. I never knew that penguins are so shy that scientist had to make a fake robot penguin just to know more about penguins. Also what I learned is that scientist had to watch 650 feet away from the penguins. My question is how did they even see anything from being so far away? Another thing that I learned about penguins and elephant seals is that they both don't like people.

  • Hugh12345678901234567890123456
    11/06/2014 - 12:05 p.m.

    It's interesting how the penguins interact with the robotic one. But how do they monitor the penguin's heartbeat? I think when the robotic fake penguin snuggles up, there could be an instrument that can check it's pulse.

  • katey0916
    11/06/2014 - 12:11 p.m.

    This is so cute and so smart! I think this is the best way to get information about the cute little guys. With out freaking them out. Great idea I LOVED IT!!

  • BANA454545
    11/06/2014 - 12:12 p.m.

    That is so cute of a penguin robot and it didn't scare the adult penguins away because the robot penguin looks like a baby penguin and the researchers watched from 650 feet away for they do not scare away the penguins .

  • Big_Fluffy_Giant
    11/06/2014 - 12:31 p.m.

    It's cool scientist finally made a penguin that other penguins aren't scared of. I think it's kinda scary that a random penguin shows up in the pack. How would you like it if there was a random robot guy walk in the classroom and doesn't say anything and all of sudden we all just start singing for him.

  • secretswagger
    11/06/2014 - 12:33 p.m.

    I think it is cool that the penguins were able to be looked after and researched at a safe distance. I think the penguins were a little confused that the penguin robot had wheels but it still did not scare the penguins away. I also think the guys studying were 640 feet away because they did not want to scare the penguins or else it could mess up the studying.

  • AJ_Slater
    11/06/2014 - 12:40 p.m.

    Emperor penguins are notoriously shy and will waddle away form human researchers. Luckily science has brought us a robot that can observe the penguins by disguising itself as a baby penguin. This now robot is allowing new discovers to be made about the biology of ecology of penguins. I think that this type of robot will be used in the future for other shy animals.

  • Elyses-Mag
    11/06/2014 - 12:43 p.m.

    I think so too. You are really smart. But what about the king penguins? They attacked the robot when it moved, so how did they get the readings?

  • GigiSylvester-Ste
    11/06/2014 - 01:05 p.m.

    I think that its wonderful that they are observing them from a safe distance. I wonder if the spy penguine scres the real penguines? This is so cool!

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