A Fuzzy Infiltrator – Improving Penguin Studies

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.

Courtesy of Popular Science

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.


Internet Roundup – Merry Christmas Science

The holiday season is both wonderful and stressful, and it’s certainly thrown this blog’s regular posting schedule for a bit of a loop. But when you get the chance to relax with a rum and eggnog, I’d encourage you to check out this collection of Christmas-themed articles exploring the science of the season. Merry Christmas!

Couldn’t agree more, Santa! Courtesy of PLoS.

New York Times – To Be Born on a Christmas Morn: What exactly are the odds of being born on Christmas Day?

NPR – How To Build An Indestructible Gingerbread House: A civil engineer takes on the challenge of confectionery construction.

Scientific American – Why Rudolph Should Never Have Joined Santa’s Reindeer: The dangers of navigating air traffic through fog as thick as pea soup, even with a shiny red nose.

Popular Science – The Physics of Emperor Penguin Huddles: How do these seasonal birds of a feather actually flock together?

International Business Times – Santa Science: Fact Checking Saint Nick’s Christmas Ride, Rudolph’s Nose And Elf Labor Abuse: A rational discussion of just what Santa must go through on his journeys to good girls and boys.

Wired – The Curious Evolution of Holiday Lights: Modern displays are a far cry from the first electrified Christmas trees.

Arizona Science Center – Why Does Fruitcake Last So Long?: A video answer to the mystery behind everyone’s favorite holiday treat.