DEC 15, 2014 12:00 AM PST

Peeking Penguin Prop Gets Up Close And Personal

For years animal researchers have struggled with the problem of observing species in the wild. The very act of trying to observe animals in their natural habitat can influence behavior and skew research results. Animal cams can only capture so much if they are fixed in one location. If a team of scientists moves into an animal's natural habitat, no matter how careful, there will be external factors that the animals can pick up on such as the smell of humans, the scent of food and the noise from equipment and vehicles. These factors can greatly affect how the animals behave and ruin any chance of getting good data.

Penguins have proven especially difficult to study. Their habitat is usually distinctly their own, with no humans for hundreds of miles. While many penguins are tagged with RFID chips to track them, the chips must be read by hand held digital scanners. The range of the scanners is only about two feet. As it turns out, when researchers would get within two feet of a tagged penguin, the stress levels of the birds would go sky high. Penguins don't like to be approached by scary humans with digital equipment and their heart rate and other indicators made this clear.

Yvon Le Maho, of the University of Strasbourg, has studied penguins for over 40 years and came up with a solution. A wheeled rover, not unlike the NASA equipment on Mars. It could be remotely controlled from a much further distance away than the RFID scanners. Initially, Le Maho and his team built a large fiberglass penguin and sent it rolling into a colony of King penguins. No dice. The penguins ignored the interloper and would scatter when it came near. Le Maho told NPR,
"If you want to confuse the birds with fake penguins, it should be very, very well-designed."

Le Maho and his team then got a lucky break. At the same time they were researching the colony, a UK based film crew was shooting a documentary entitled "Penguins: Spy In The Huddle" Philip Dalton, the producer, agreed to work with Le Maho's team and together they built a model that would hopefully be able to infiltrate the group and perhaps even be accepted.

"It was like a marriage in heaven." said Dalton of his collaboration with Le Maho's team. Engineers and movie model makers worked together to get the "chick cam" just right. Built to look like a small, fuzzy baby Emperor penguin, the rover was ready to go.

The result? Dalton reported, "I think in the year that we were there, with over 1,000 hours of footage that we gathered with our penguin cams, that was an equivalent of about, I believe, five years of research." The cam was accepted almost immediately into the group. Adult penguins even sang to it and tried to take the chick under their collective "wing." Le Maho's research team was able to equip some of the adult penguins with heart monitors and their readings confirmed that when the chick cam approached, the heart rate of the penguins was about the same as when an actual penguin would approach.

Le Maho hopes that more penguin cams can be built to track and record the behavior of these adorable birds without causing them too much stress. His team's findings are detailed in a paper published in the December 2014 issue of the journal Nature Methods.

Check out the video below for some bloopers from the footage
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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