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 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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COMMENTS (266)
  • Hailey2002
    11/06/2014 - 01:21 p.m.

    I think it is so cute that the penguins sang a special song for the rover. It is to bad they didn't program it to speak back. If the penguins weren't so shy, I bet the scientists would be able to go right up to them and watch them.

  • -aNoNyMoUs-
    11/06/2014 - 01:38 p.m.

    This is a pretty clever way of researching the animals in their natural habitat without any differences in behavior, since they think the robot is just another penguin.

  • edinV-Cla
    11/06/2014 - 02:22 p.m.

    I like this story because the robotic penguin is cool. It is cool because it could spy on the real penguins. also the real penguins think it is another one of them.

  • ADempseyFS
    11/06/2014 - 03:04 p.m.

    Researchers watch from more than 650 feet because they didnt want the penguins to get scared they wanted to learn what penguins do. I also found this article cool because how the penguins act like the robot is real. The penguins also treat the robot really good. They also stated that the robot can help the actual penguins not to be shy.

  • coreoftheend
    11/06/2014 - 03:16 p.m.

    I like how they made a rover to see how they acted when they were not running away and they watched 650 feet because they did not want to scare the penguins and mes up there research

  • THEPANDA4675
    11/06/2014 - 03:17 p.m.

    THIS ARTICAL WAS MOSTLY TALKING ABOUT HOW THE RESARCHERS ARE TRYING TO LOOK INTO THE LIVE OF THE PINGUENS BUT THEY CANT. SOMTHIGN THAT THEY TRY TO DO IS STAY 650 FEET AWAY FROM THEM BUT IF THE PINGUENS SEE THEM THEY WILL GO RUNNING AND THERE HEART RAIT GOES UP. BUT THE ARTICAL IS MOSTLY ABOUT THE LITTEL ROBOT THEY BRUNG IN TO SPY ON THE PIGUENS.

  • GKeaneFS
    11/06/2014 - 03:17 p.m.

    I thought this was so adorable having a robot penguins finding out real penguins secrets. I really like how scientists want to know more penguins.

  • huntertl-loy
    11/06/2014 - 03:29 p.m.

    The world comes up with crazy things I mean a robot penguin you got to be kidding with me and the penquins don't even know it is a robot penquins must be stupid.

  • LucasH-3
    11/06/2014 - 06:43 p.m.

    The newest tool biologists use is the baby penguin robotic spy. Penguins enjoy talking to it too, as if it was a potential mate for their chicks. Emperor penguins are normally very shy, so experts in France have created a remote controlled rover that is disguised as a chick to snuggle up to shy penguins in Antarctica. Researchers watch from more than 650 feet away. This is how the documentary "The March of the Penguins" was made. Researchers tried about five versions of the machine until they found the right one. It is covered in grey fur. It has black arms, a has a black-and-white painted face and black beak.

  • BeckettN-2
    11/06/2014 - 06:53 p.m.

    This article is about a robot disguised as a baby penguin in order to examine penguins in their natural habitat. Normally penguins get scared of scientists trying to measure their heartbeat and even being near them, but with the robot, the penguins approach and even sing to the robot. I think it's great that scientists have found a way to approach penguins without scaring them.

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