Studying wild animals in close range could provide scientists with valuable information but researchers who want to get close to Emperor penguins had a problem.
The animals are very shy that they back away and their heart rate elevates when scientists approach them and this isn't a good thing if researchers want to monitor their heart rate and other parameters of their health.
In order to study these animals without disrupting their behavior and stressing them out, researchers have come up with an ingenious approach to get as near to these penguins as possible. They built a rover that looked like a young penguin.
Yvon Le Maho, from France's University of Strasbourg, and colleagues built a remote control rover that they disguised as a baby penguin to mingle with the penguins in ice-covered Adelaide Land in Antarctica.
The researchers came up with about five different versions of the rover including one made of fiberglass that scared the birds until they came up with just the right rover, one that looked like a real penguin chick. It had black arms, gray furs, black beak as well as a black and white face.
The rover did not scare the penguins and the researchers were able make observations from over 650 meters away.
Le Maho even related that the penguins even sang a special song to the disguised rover, which in his opinion, could be that the adult penguins were on the lookout for a mate for their young and were waiting, albeit in vain, for the rover to respond by making a sound. Groups of chicks also huddle around the robtotic animal spy.
"They were very disappointed when there was no answer," Le Maho said. "Next time we will have a rover playing songs."
Reporting the results of their experiment in the journal Nature Methods on Nov. 2, the researchers said that the use of remotely operated vehicles to conducts studies on wild animals in their natural habitat does not stress the animals and is less invasive. The findings also suggested that the lower impact of the rover on the behavior of the animals allows scientists to gather more accurate scientific data.
"When approached by a remote-operated vehicle (rover) which can be equipped to make radio-frequency identifications, wild penguins had significantly lower and shorter stress responses (determined by heart rate and behavior) than when approached by humans," the researchers wrote. "Upon immobilization, the rover-unlike humans-did not disorganize colony structure, and stress rapidly ceased."