An international team of scientists and filmmakers, led by Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg, France, have been using the robot chick in Adelie Land, Antarctica, where the 2005 documentary “March of the Penguins” was filmed.
Robotic chick overcoming Penguins’ shyness
Monitoring the heart rate, health and other parameters of emperor penguins is not an easy task. When approached, the penguins usually back away and their heart rate increases due to a perceived threat. However the robot is so convincing that the penguins approach it, considering it a potential mate for their chicks.
The scientists were able to watch from around 650 feet away, far enough for the penguins to behave naturally. Five different disguises were trialed before the researchers found one that didn’t scare the birds. The final version sports gray fur, black arms, a black-and-white face and a black beak.
Le Maho has suggested that the adult penguins treated the robot like a potential mate for their chicks because they began to serenade it with “a very special song like a trumpet.” However the penguins were left dismayed by a lack of response from the robot chick, which was not programmed 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.”
As well as approaching individual adult penguins, the robot chick also mingled in with groups of other chicks in order to disguise itself.
Rovers and their uses
The thinking behind the use of rovers is that the behavior of shy animals can be changed by the simple presence of researchers, and could influence the results of studies. This is a point of contention within the scientific community, with some scientists maintaining that their presence does not distort results.
Le Maho previously used an undisguised rover to study king penguins and elephant seals, both of which do not fear the presence of strangers. The elephant seals didn’t even flinch as the rover monitored them, while the king penguins attacked the robot with their beaks until it stopped moving.
There are plans to employ a more autonomous robot to read signals from radio tags attached to the emperor penguins.