What do biologists need a robotic penguin for?

To get an up-close look at notoriously skittish emperor penguins, scientists have built a robotic baby penguin rover to infiltrate their populations.

The newest tool for biologists is the baby penguin robotic spy.

It's pretty darn cute, and so convincing that penguins essentially talk to it, as if it is a potential mate for their chicks.

Emperor penguins are notoriously shy. When researchers approach, these penguins normally back away and their heart rate goes up. That's not what the scientists need when they want to check heart rate, health and other penguin parameters.

So international scientists and even filmmakers, led by Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France, created a remote control rover disguised as a chick to snuggle up to shy penguins in Adelie Land, Antarctica — the same place where the 2005 documentary "March of thePenguins" was filmed.

Researchers watched from more than 650 feet away.

The first disguised version of the rover, made of fiberglass, didn't pass muster and scared the real birds, Le Maho said.

Researchers tried about five versions until they hit upon the right one. It's covered in gray fur, sports black arms, and has a black-and-white painted face and black beak.

The penguins didn't scamper away and even sang to it with "a very special song like a trumpet," Le Maho said.

Le Maho suggested that the adult penguins were trying to find a mate for their chicks and they were listening for a response, but researchers didn't program the rover to make a sound.

"They were very disappointed when there was no answer," Le Maho said. "Next time we will have a rover playing songs."

At other times, the rover crowded in with a group of chicks, acting as "a spy in the huddle," Le Maho said.

There's a reason scientists want to use rovers. Some, but not all, researchers worry that just by coming close to some shy animals they change their behavior and can taint the results of their studies, Le Maho said.

Le Maho also used a rover without any animal disguise to spy on king penguins and elephant seals because those animals don't flee strangers. The king penguins attacked the small rover with their beaks, unless it stayed still, but that still allowed the device to get close enough to get readings. The large lumbering elephant seals didn't budge when the rover zipped by and around them.

In the future, the researchers plan to use a more autonomous robot to spy on the emperor penguins. The idea is to use devices on the rover to read signals from radio tags on the birds.

The study was published Sunday by the journal Nature Methods.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.