The Robotic Baby Penguin That Spies For Scientists 

The Robotic Baby Penguin That Spies For Scientists 

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Yvon Le Maho, who has been studying penguins for more than 40 years, knows that humans make penguins very skittish so it is difficult to collect data about natural behavior. He wondered about sending in a small rover on wheels to carry a camera and other recording equipment. When the idea was first tested, he found the penguins’ stress levels stayed low.

Would the rover be accepted into the colony if it were disguised as a baby penguin? The answer was, an emphatic, yes.

Even the early model rover with clearly visible wheels, pictured above, was accepted into the huddle. Later models had the tires concealed.

Luckily for Le Maho, at the same time he was experimenting, the UK-based John Downer Productions, was working on shooting a film using camouflaged cameras to get into emperor penguin colonies.

“It was like a marriage in heaven,” Philip Dalton, producer of the BBC mini-series “Penguins: Spy in the Huddle”, told NPR.

Their collaborative effort resulted in the ‘chickcam,’ a data collection penguin so lifelike that adults tried to care for it. The feathered rover also captured something that had never before been recorded: an emperor penguin laying an egg.

In the 2013 clip below, penguins in the film meet ’emperorcam’ for the first time. One of the 50 spy cameras that filmed, as never before, the charismatic birds.

(WATCH a video of the chickcam, and READ the story from NPR)

Photo credit: Le Maho and team, in NatureMethods