America has a seemingly undying love of penguins, and for understandable reasons. Their babies are awkwardly waddling adorable fluffballs; their adults are graceful swimmers of freezing seas; their cartoons are endearingly spunky. Zoos and aquariums across the country offer penguin experiences, letting fans get up close and personal with the waterfowl. As penguin habitats become increasingly threatened by global climate change, these warm and fuzzy feelings help encourage conservation efforts and build support for scientists who study the animals.
Yet for wild penguins, a human encounter is often a source of discomfort rather than delight. The presence of people increases stress in penguins, raising their heart rates and changing hormone levels in ways that can harm reproduction. This puts conservation scientists in a bind: they need to work closely with penguins to obtain good data, but their very presence can harm the birds they want to study. Yvon Le Maho, a French Antarctic scientist, recently published a study in Nature Methods that offers a clever workaround for this conundrum: remote-controlled penguins.
Le Maho and his colleagues reasoned that penguins would be far less stressed by an intruder if it looked more like one of their own kind. To this end, the scientists designed a remote-controlled car topped by a stuffed animal version of a penguin chick. Getting the rover right was a matter of trial and error; the researchers tried five different versions of their device, including a fiberglass version that seemed to disturb the birds even more than undisguised humans did.
Once the team developed a suitable penguin “spy,” they compared the responses of penguins to approaches by humans and the car. By measuring penguin heart rates and observing their behavior, Le Maho and collaborators determined that the birds were four times less stressed when the car made its way into their territory. The disguised rover could join an emperor penguin creche, a tightly packed circle of penguin chicks, without arousing suspicion. Adult emperor penguins even began to sing at the contraption, leading Le Maho to comment, “they were very disappointed when there was no answer. Next time we will have a rover playing songs.”
Although the fuzzy little car seems frivolous, its built-in radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader allows it to identify tagged penguins without disturbing them, which is very important for studying the community structure and distribution of the birds. Similar devices could be designed to zip past other wary wild species; the scientists note that their penguin car also went unmolested by elephant seals, which in their words “generally react strongly when humans approach their tails.” If researchers add cameras and microphones, the car might someday get a bird’s-eye view of penguin life. Of course, in the case of these flightless waterfowl, that perspective will be stuck to the ground.