Antarctic Scientists Infiltrate Penguin Huddles With Adorable Remote-Controlled Car

Penguin spying, for science

Oh, hello. What have we here? I’m intrigued and I’m not even a penguin.

So this little chick on wheels is actually a remote-controlled RFID reader. A team of researchers from Europe and Australia developed the machine to keep track of the birds they study. The birds themselves are implanted with radio-frequency identification chips, similar to the microchips that pet owners can have implanted in their cats and dogs to identify them, in case Fluffy gets lost one day. When the Antarctic researchers want to identify which microchipped birds are in a group they’re observing, they simply drive their disguised tag-reader into the group.

The researchers used to just walk into penguin groups carrying handheld RFID readers, they wrote in a paper, published yesterday in the journal Nature Methods. The scientists noticed, however, that their presence disturbed the ground-bound flocks. The penguins’ levels of stress hormones would rise, which researchers worried was bad for their health. A remote-controlled car causes less stressed-out reactions, the team demonstrated in a series of experiments.

There are tagging technologies that don’t require a nearby scanner at all. For example, satellite tags send signals into space, then back down to researchers, all without requiring a person—or a stuffed animal-wearing, remote-controlled car—to get close to the tag. However, such tags are larger and can perturb animals in other ways, such as slowing down their swimming. The penguin car lets researchers have the best of both worlds.

To test whether the car really was less disturbing than a scanner-wielding human, the research team tried both methods with a population of king penguins, a species that’s closely related to, and looks similar to, the emperor penguin. The king penguins’ heart rates didn’t increase as much when the car approached them, compared to when a human approached them. The birds attacked both humans and undisguised cars, however, so it’s not as if the car doesn’t bother them at all.

Emperor penguins seemed less affected by the car than king penguins, perhaps because they’re less territorial. Forty-seven percent of the emperor penguins researchers drove the car at didn’t react. The other birds either increased their alertness, or investigated the car. When researchers decked the car out in an emperor chick costume, both emperor adults and chicks let it come close to them. The incognito car was even able to join a crèche, or a huddle of penguin chicks, without disturbance.

RFID Car Joins Emperor Penguin Chick Huddle

The Nature Methods paper lists some of the penguin car’s specs. (You know, in case you’re thinking of getting one.) It’s able to read three tags’ signals a second, coming from all directions. It records tags’ identification numbers as well as their GPS coordinates. It’s not perfect for all situations. Colin Southwell, an ecologist with the Australian Antarctic Division who didn’t work on the car, told Popular Science it wouldn’t be feasible for the Adélie penguins he studies because they nest on rockier ground. But it could work beyond penguins: The car’s developers tested it in elephant seals and found the seals aren’t bothered by the car approaching their heads and tails, which is where elephant seals are normally tagged. I don’t think the researchers disguised the car for that job, but I’d certainly like to see that.