I’m a sucker for adorable robots, particularly those that emulate animals. I’m not talking about Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog or lightning-fast robotic cheetah, I mean things like robotic kangaroos and sea turtles. Now there’s another one to add to the list, and it may just be my new favorite: the robotic baby emperor penguin.
Emperor penguins are difficult to study—they’re shy and they live in Antarctic. I once saw a David Attenborough wildlife documentary about them, and they’re pretty darn interesting. They’re the tallest and heaviest penguins in the world, and they actually breed during the winter, which in Antarctica is pretty crazy, especially when all the male penguins huddle together incubating their eggs while the females go find food. They go months without eating, forming and reforming their huddle to keep warm, and rotating who gets to be on the inside.
Researchers from the University of Strasbourg in France wanted to step up their study of these awesome birds, so they affixed a heart rate monitor to 34 king penguins (how, I’m not entirely sure). The monitors work via RFID antenna, which is essentially the same way pass cards work. Then, they sent in a four-wheeled rover to see how the birds reacted. They didn’t seem as bothered by the rover as they did by the humans—based on the monitors, which the rover read, the birds’ heart rates weren’t as elevated as when humans were around—their heart rates also returned to normal more quickly. Moral of the story: humans freak out penguins more than robots.
Then, in the next experiment, the researchers dressed up the rover as a fluffy baby penguin and sent it into a colony. The penguins didn’t freak out at all—in fact, they actually let the rover interact with other penguin chicks. Clearly, the costume worked. The scientists then did the same experiment, but on elephant seals, who “react strongly when humans approach” but barely paid the baby penguin-bot any mind. The study was published in Nature Methods.
The ultimate goal of the study is to examine the effects of climate change on the breeding of king penguins—something scientists have already noted has taken a turn for the worse. For example, the colony of Emperor Penguins featured in March of the Penguins has been shrinking steadily due to higher temperatures and winds, which have resulted in the thinning of the sea ice the chicks live on for their first few years.