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Happy Feet: Robo Edition

Rover disguised a penguin penetrates penguin colony

Nicole Billitz
Happy Feet: Robo Edition© 2019 Flickr

Antarctica just got a whole lot more adorable. Senior researcher Yvon Le Maho at the University of Strasbourg, France agrees. Maho has been studying nesting penguins concluded that the best way to study penguins was to BE a penguin. Well, sort of.

What initially started as a way to document behavior, GPS locate, and monitor heart rates has turned into an Antarctic youtube sensation. Maho was attempting to monitor the behavior of both King and Emperor penguins. He first outfitted 34 King penguins with external heart rate monitors. These specific RFID antennas need to be within 60 centimeters of our cuddly friends, which posed no problem to the King penguins, the territorial type who didn’t feel the least bit threatened by a human toy car (read: rover).

Emperor penguins, on the other hand, are reportedly the sensitive type. Not at all the territorial birds like their relatives, when the first rover made of fiberglass attempted to approach the penguins, their heart rate increased an average 35 beats per minute, a clear indication of stress. Researchers for the project ended up redesigning the rover a total of 5 times. Luckily, the last time was the charm. Designed as a chick, approximately the same size, and made with soft like and similar colored fuzz, this robot penguin was an instant success. According to the researchers as cited in TechCrunch, 47% of the penguins didn’t even notice the little guy, and 25% wanted to make friends. So much so in fact, that not only did the researchers get all the RFID monitoring they desired, but the chick penguins actually huddled over to the robot penguin for warmth, and adults sang to it, appearing disappointed that it did not respond.

Maho intents to develop a better, more realistic design for an adult Emperor penguin, both in sound and movement. Researchers are hopeful that it will help study the effects of climate change on birds in the Antarctic.


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