Yvon Le Maho and colleagues at the University of Strasbourg in France have designed a tiny rover disguised as a penguin chick*. The rover has been embraced by the colonies, allowing the researchers to gather data without stressing out the animals (by tracking heart rates, the researchers were able to directly measure how much a human researcher stressed out the penguins compared to the disguised rover). The penguin chick rover also wheeled through elephant seal colonies and elicited almost no response, whereas if a human tries to approach an elephant seal from the tail, they apparent;y "react strongly." (I'm not sure what exactly that entails, but I am sure I don't want to be anywhere nearby when an elephant seal is reacting strongly.)
This disguised rover follows in a grand and goofy tradition of scientists disguising themselves or their instruments as animals. Many huge successes have arisen from this strategy, from the well-known whooping crane project, whereby scientists dress as whooping cranes to raise youngsters, to the animal behaviour research conducted by Dan Blumstein and his robotic badger.
Read more about scientists dressing up as the animals they study here.
*Thank you to Paul Manning for sharing this lovely article!
In another experiment, the researchers disguised the rover as a penguin chick and sent it into a colony of notoriously shy emperor penguins. The birds allowed it to approach (see above) and in one case even infiltrate a creche of chicks (see below). Finally, they tried the undisguised rover on southern elephant seals, massive animals that can weigh more than 7,000 pounds. The seals hardly seemed to notice. As the researchers write—with typical academic understatement—in a paper published today in Nature Methods: “This is notable as elephant seals generally react strongly when humans approach their tails (data not shown).”