It's a story, much like the ones you've heard before. An orphaned bird must stand alone within its flock, to find its own place amongst its peers. But this isn't the story of an ugly little duckling that turns into a swan, or one of a tap-dancing emperor penguin with a knack for hip hop. This is a tale of a remote-operated rover that brought researchers into the fold of a penguin colony, for a view unlike anything we've seen before.
Rovers have been a staple for space exploration on nearby and far off desolate planets, because they allow researchers to explore terrain and learn more about their surroundings with ample distance between them and their subjects. But domestically, the technology has had far more important applications.
Allowing researchers an up-close and personal view of some of the most dangerous or fascinating pack species, rovers have helped ecologists develop a far more in-depth view of behavior and survival methods that would unlikely be seen with the presence of a human researcher in the flesh.
"Investigating wild animals while minimizing human disturbance remains an important methodological challenge" lead researcher of a study published this week in the journal Nature Methods, Yvon Le Maho says.
The presence of human researchers often causes undeniable bias in behavioral studies in wildlife research subjects, as the animals modify normal activity due to increased stress levels. So in order to find a way around this innate bias, researchers from the University of Strasbourg, France equipped 34 king penguins in Adelie Land, Antarctica with external heart monitors, which needed a nearby rover to approach the subjects to gather their data in the midst of a colony of incubating male penguins.
The first rover, made of fiberglass, was able to get near elephant seals while flying under the radar, but the male king penguins whose job it is to keep the colony's eggs safe were much more the wiser. As the rover approached, the penguins responded with alarm, squawking, pecking at the rover and elevated heart rates, which rebounded quickly to a normal resting rate after the rover entered the colony.
But in order to even further lower the stress on the colony, the researchers transformed the plain rover into something much more penguin-friendly. After developing five versions, the research team settled on a design disguised as a fuzzy penguin chick, who had the whole colony singing. Other chicks huddled together around the rover, and adults sang to it like they do for their own chicks - opening an entirely new view of penguin behavior than researchers have seen before.
"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" Le Maho says. "[This is an important distinguishing discovery as] rovers can reduce human disturbance of wild animals and the resulting scientific bias, [found in a large quantity of field-based research]."