Cute Rover, Cute Rover, Send Robo-Penguin Right Over

SCIENCE

Scientists have built a rover that looks like a fluffy penguin chick, allowing it to sneak around Antarctic colonies and get close to individual birds without ruffling too many feathers along the way. (Los Angeles Times)

Watch Nat Geo photographer Paul Nicklen play the part of robo-penguin to get amazing footage of these “Emperors of the Ice.”

Teachers, scroll all the way down for a short list of key resources in our “Teachers’ Toolkit.”

Discussion Ideas

  • According to the L.A. Times, researchers in Antarctica are using a rover (remotely operated vehicle) disguised as a penguin check “to collect data on their phenotypic traits.” What are phenotypic traits?
    • Phenotypic traits are observable expressions of an organism’s genes. Examples of an emperor penguin’s phenotypic traits might include its distinctive coloring or the length of its beak.
What phenotypic traits would you study among this penguin family? Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

What phenotypic traits would you study among this penguin family?
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

 

  • Why are the researchers using robo-penguin instead of collecting data themselves?
    • Using the small rover reduces stress among the penguins. According to the L.A. Times, “A human who invaded a penguin’s personal space caused the bird’s heart rate to jack up much higher than a rover did, the researchers found—and the effect from the human encounter lasted much longer, too. ‘Human approaches led to an excess in [heart rate] approximately four times larger than that due to rover approaches,’ they wrote.”
Penguins are probably not too stressed out by Nat Geo photographers by this point. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Penguins are probably not too stressed out by Nat Geo photographers by this point.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

 

  • Why would the researchers need to get so close to the penguins in the first place?
    • They are collecting data by picking up radio signals from tiny devices placed beneath the animals’ skin. Sometimes, researchers or robo-penguin need to get as close as 60 centimeters—that’s less than two feet—to collect data.
Would you want to get within two feet of this steely eyed beast? Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Would you want to get within two feet of this steely eyed beast?
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Or get close to his two feet? Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Or get close to his two feet?
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

A tiny device placed under a penguin's skin might emit data on the bird's heart rate and other vital signs, but won't get wet—penguin feathers seal out water and trap air in a downy underlayer. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

A tiny device placed under a penguin’s skin might emit data on the bird’s heart rate and other vital signs, but won’t get wet—penguin feathers seal out water and trap air in a downy underlayer.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

 

  • Watch “Emperor Penguins on Ice,” our video of photographer Paul Nicklen on assignment with penguins in Antarctica. Could Paul have used robo-penguin to help him get all the footage he collected?
    • Nope. First of all, robo-penguin does not have the skills of Paul Nicklen—check out this gorgeous penguin gallery! (And all the photos in this blog post.)
    • Second, Paul braved the chilly waters of the Antarctic to get those beautiful images. Robo-penguin is limited to terrestrial adventures.
Penguins usually swim at the surface, which loads their plumage with air. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Penguins usually swim at the surface, which loads their plumage with air.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Nat Geo photographers also swim at the surface, with their tanks full of air. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Nat Geo photographers also swim at the surface, with their scuba tanks full of air.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

 

  • One of robo-penguin’s duties was to “infiltrate a crèche.” What is a crèche?
    • A crèche is a place where animals (usually birds) take care of young that are not their own.
The emperor in this crèche is overwhelmed by the chicks. And the cuteness! Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

The emperor in this crèche is overwhelmed by the chicks. And the cuteness!
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Los Angeles Times: Robot baby penguin infiltrates Antarctic colony

Nat Geo video: Emperor Penguins on Ice

Nat Geo glossary:
rover
phenotypic trait
radio signal
crèche

Paul Nicklen Photography: Emperor Penguins gallery

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