November 30, 2022

A robot lives in this Antarctic penguin colony. It’s trying to save them

6 min read


Slightly shorter than the average adult emperor, 3 feet tall (1 meter tall) sits quietly inside an autonomous robot colony, compared to humans who sometimes emerge from a nearby research station.

Birds occasionally see ECHO, an unmanned and remote-controlled ground vehicle, because “they are curious about everything they don’t know,” said Dan Zitterbert, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Said

But it is a passing fad for emperors, who go faster than static. Penguins are randomized by robots, which act like a mobile antenna to monitor about 300 of them each year.

In the study, the authors suggest that the Emperor Penguin should be listed as a threat under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“Emperor penguins live in a delicate balance with their environment, there is a sea ice ‘Gold Locks’ zone,” said study author Stephanie Jenover, seabird ecologist and associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in a statement. ۔ “If there is too little sea ice, chickens can drown when the sea ice breaks quickly; if there is too much sea ice, the fodder journey becomes too long and difficult, and the chicks can starve to death.”

Satellite image shows new penguin colonies in Antarctica.

The chicks should flutter their wings before growing the wings they use for swimming – but if they are still covered after the snow melts, they will sink.

As top predators, the emperor penguins act as the Sentinel species, meaning they are the ideal species to study in a fluctuating ecosystem because they can show that something is wrong. By studying these birds, Zitterbart and his team can learn about the effects of the climate crisis in Antarctica.

Surprisingly little is known about these penguins because Antarctica is not the easiest place for scientists. Although it is important to learn more about penguins and their ecosystems, the team did not want to introduce harmful human footprints in an already fragile environment or adversely affect the colony.

This year’s successful ECHO trial is already showing how this is possible.

Penguin walking

Since 2017, Zitterbart and other researchers have been tagging 300 penguin chickens each year with a system similar to the way dogs and cats are micro-chipped. Is part of MARE project Measuring the health of the Antarctic marine ecosystem through long-term monitoring of the Emperor Penguin population over the next 30 years.

Celine Le Boheck, a researcher at the Hubert Curiein Multidisciplinary Institute at the Scientific Center in Monaco and the University of Strasbourg in France, said five-month-old penguin chicks are easy to catch because they are manageable and “quite stupid”.

This is the end of a long working day in Atka Bay.

The research team uses small barriers to prevent other penguins from seeing the process. Adult penguins focus on feeding their chicks as soon as they return from the sea, so fortunately they do not pay attention to the researchers.

It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to tag each chicken, he said. Using glue to attach flipper banding or sensors can be harmful, so they use five to seven small strips of special tape to attach the sensor under the chicken’s wings.

The use of inactive integrated transponders and radio frequency identification systems can allow remote monitoring of penguins. But the tiny sensors worn by penguins do not have their own power supply, so they can only be read from a distance of one or two meters.

This is where ECHO comes in. The robot acts like a receiver station because it is connected to wireless receivers, automatically receiving data from Penguin’s sensors.

This robot is a supplement to the SPOT, or Single Penguin Observation and Tracking Observatory, which was deployed in 2013. The observatory is adjacent to the colony and close to the German Antarctic Research Base, Newmeyer Station III. It is equipped with 16 cameras that can capture individual penguins as well as the entire colony over an area of ​​9.7 square miles (25 sq km).

Meet a giant figure from Columbus Zoo's latest Humboldt penguin chick

With ECHO, they do not miss the opportunity to collect data when birds return to the colony to feed their chicks. And now they won’t have to use SPOT to find tagged by a crowd of 20,000 birds because ECHO automatically catches them.

By tracking and studying the behavior of penguins over time, researchers can observe how these animals adapt to changes in their environment due to climate change. By micro-chipping the penguin, the team can determine where the penguins go when they dive into the sea with sea ice and understand their foraging strategy. This insight can help determine the size of Marine Protected Areas.

During the winter, ECHO can be part of a large-scale penguin huddle that gathers to protect itself from the elements. It sits down and scans the penguin without the need for energy to move or turn. In the summer, the colony “loosens,” Zitterbart said. Again, the robot needs to move – albeit very slowly to avoid attracting the penguin’s attention. The robot has a leader, or light detection and range, so it can detect obstacles while moving along the colony.

Learn a lesson

Zetterbart said the ECHO’s first outing this year was considered “year zero.” Now that researchers know the robot is viable, and it’s part of a program funded by the National Science Foundation, they can apply the lessons learned.

The robot has so far been able to withstand temperatures as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius) in Antarctica.

The ECHO rover is shown in front of the Single Penguin Observatory & Tracking Observatory.

The team learned that ECHO is not good with tight turns, and it can get stuck in the snow. Sea ice conditions are ideal for driving until mid-December, when summer begins and the snow becomes very soft. Researchers are working on ECHO’s algorithm to ensure that when the robot operates on its own, it can figure out how to get stuck.

But the most important thing scientists have learned is that penguins are not afraid of ECHO or any small noise it produces. When ECHO drives, it moves slower than a human can.

“You have to be really, really careful, and we’re trying to do more science with less stress,” Zetterbart said.

Researchers are always wary of putting pressure on birds and colonies. In return, Le Boheck said, the extra stress could support their results.

It likes to watch shows about endangered penguins.

Research at Attock Bay has become a multifaceted endeavor that has brought together all kinds of scientists, and “none of us can run it alone,” Zitterbart said.

Zitterbart and his colleagues typically spend about six to eight weeks each year. During the Antarctic winter, his favorite time to stay there is in April or September, when “the sky is a gazelle color every day.” And with only nine other people at the research station, it’s nice and quiet.

Living signs of change

If the population of a high predator starts to decline, it shows that many other species are also declining.

“They are an interesting species because they enhance and consolidate all the modifications of the ecosystem,” said Le Boheck.

Long-term surveillance can determine if the penguin’s swimming pools have changed as they search for food or any other behavior that could signal changes in the ecosystem.

The Emperor Penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all penguin species.

Attock Bay Colony, for example, now begins its breeding season a month later, which means it needs longer sea ice. Warm temperatures can dissipate sea ice early in the season, forcing penguins to move to a location that cannot support their large colony.

“The biodiversity in the South China Sea is so small compared to the more temperate regions of the world that losing any species there is catastrophic,” Zetterbart said.

Seeing thousands of penguins in Attock Bay, Zitterbart is amazed when he considers the fact that they grow up in a hostile icy desert.

“Evolution has the potential to fill every last place on the planet and ultimately come up with an animal that can survive in that area,” he said. “It’s amazing to me every time I come back.”



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