Photo by Chadica via Flickr CC
One part creepy, one part cool, penguins are being used to help guide autonomous underwater robots that will study why bird populations are dropping. Scientists are scratching their head as to why Adelie penguins are dying off in huge numbers over the past few decades, so the penguins themselves will be used as a tool, rather than just a subject, for research. With electronics attached to their backs that help guide the robots, the penguins may help uncover the mystery, and possibly help conservationists bring their numbers back up. Wired reports, "The underwater robots, called gliders, are programmed to record ocean conditions as they follow the tracks of Adelie penguins swimming in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica."
The researchers -- Bill Fraser, a penguin biologist and President of the Polar Oceans Research Group, and oceanographers Alex Kahl and Oscar Schofield of Rutgers University -- guess that the penguins have been starving to death as they can't find the krill they prefer to eat due to disappearing sea ice.
The team used gliders that can dive along with the penguins to see where they're going and, more importantly, what they're feeding on so that they can find out what's really happening. The team saw that penguins were diving to areas rich in algae, which feeds the krill the penguins eat.
"With the radio tags on the penguins, we could see where they foraged and how deep they were," Schofield told Wired. But with the addition of the gliders, "for the first time, now we know why they're there."
Their research was published in Oxford Journals Integrative and Comparative Biology.
The next step is to continue to monitor the birds with these gliders that follow the swimming penguins to see if they are getting enough to eat and if lack of food is the reason for the population decline.
Earlier in the year, Japanese scientists attached cameras to Adelie penguins to try and get, quite literally, a bird's eye view of where the penguins were diving. The tiny cameras switched on when the penguins hit the water, and could capture about 90 minutes of footage. Out of 15 penguins fitted with the cameras, footage was retrieved from 10, and the video is currently being studied by the researchers.
Meanwhile, other researchers are working on monitoring the weight of the penguins by building a special scale. Knowing how much food they are or aren't getting is reflected in the numbers as they hop across:
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More on Adelie Penguins
Penguins Hop on the Scale for Climate Research (Video)
The Trials and Tribulations of Adélie Penguins in a Rapidly Warming Antarctic
Kiss Penguins Goodbye if the Planet Warms 2 Degrees Celsius: WWF