Penguin Rover Checks in on Tagged Penguins, Keeps Them Calm

©. Le Maho et al, Nature Methods

Some tagged Antarctic penguins have had a new visitor lately and although it looks cute and cuddly it has an important purpose. The furry, penguin lookalike is a robot on a mission to check in on wild penguins while keeping them calm and stress-free.

Researchers studying king and emperor penguin and elephant seal populations have had to get up close in order to pick up radio-frequency identifications from tagged animals, which would cause the animals stress. In a series of tests with a rover, the team found that remote identification of tagged animals without causing any negative impact was possible if they dressed a small rover up like a penguin chick.

When a human or undisguised rover approaches the animals, they tend to react in alarm, but when the camouflaged rover came near, emperor penguin chicks and adults both began vocalizing at it as though it were one of their own. A few of the penguins were outfitted with external heart rate monitors that could be monitored using an RFID antenna that had to be within 60 centimeters of the penguin to get a reading.

Not only did the penguins let the rover in close enough, but they began huddling up against it. The rover was able to collect heart rate data that showed the penguins had no signs of stress when interacting with the robot.

The authors also tested the rover with a colony of southern elephant seals and a group of king penguins who also showed no signs of stress. In fact, the elephant seals allowed the rover to approach within RFID distances of their heads and tails, where they are usually tagged, which is notable because they typically react very strongly when humans approach their tails.

"Approaching animals with a rover can reduce impact, as measured by heart rates and behavior of king penguins, thus allowing such animals to be considered as undisturbed," the authors write in the journal Nature Methods. "The relevance of this technology extends beyond terrestrial populations of seabirds or mammals, as rovers could be adapted for use in aquatic or aerial environments."