Getting up close and personal with animals is crucial to understanding their behaviour.
But what if that documentation should effect or even change the way they behave?
This dilemma has been the crux of debate surrounding observation methods by behavioural ecologists for decades.
Now, scientists have developed a novel way of collecting data from animals in the wild, without causing them unnecessary stress – infiltrating them with a robot.
An international study saw researchers send in a cute and fluffy looking baby penguin into a huddle with real-life chicks – right under the noses of their adult parents.
Rolling in on four wheels, the remote-controlled spy was designed by scientists keen to monitor the often skittish animals without causing them stress.
The study, published in the journal Nature Methods, presented the findings of the rover test on king penguins on Possession island in the Indian Ocean as well as Emperor penguins in Antarctica.
The report found that, on both penguin populations, the rover caused much less stress and alarm than a human presence did.
This was ascertained through monitoring of the penguins heartbeats. For example, when approached by a human, a penguin’s heart rate increased by an average of 35 beats per minute. When the rover came close to it, its heart rate also increased, but only by around 24 beats per minute.
As well as this, a human caused the target penguin to move much more (average of 43 cm) than the rover (just 8cm). With the robot, the penguins were also much quicker to return to their original physiological state.
Another benefit to using the penguin rover was its ability to conduct electronic identification.
The penguin-bot was fitted with an antenna which could read electronic ID tags fitted to some of the birds for population research. Tags cannot be read beyond a distance of 60 centimetres.
“When the rover was camouflaged with a penguin model, all adult and chick emperor penguins allowed it to approach close enough for an electronic identification,” the study’s authors wrote.
“Chicks and adults were even heard vocalising at the camouflaged rover, and it was able to infiltrate a crèche without disturbance.”
In the past, behavioural ecologists attached transponders to the penguins wings in order to study their activity. these transponders could send signals over long distances but researchers soon discovered they impaired the penguins function in swimming and hence breeding and hunting.
Since then, researchers have opted to insert tiny chips, weighing less than a gram, under the skin of the penguins. But these chips have a much shorter range and has thus necessitated scientists to enter penguin colonies to obtain the data they need.
Researchers hope the penguin rover will help shed more light on the breeding patterns and behaviour of penguins which are good indicators of the health of marine environment in the Southern Ocean.
The new rover may lead to “more ethical research that also avoids the scientific bias caused by disturbing the animals in their natural habitat,” said study co-author Yvon Le Maho of France’s University of Strasbourg.