Slightly shorter than the average adult emperor, the 3-foot (1 meter long) autonomous robot sits silently inside the colony, indescribable compared to the humans who occasionally emerge from a nearby research station.
Birds sometimes notice the Echo, a remote-controlled unmanned ground vehicle, because they “show curiosity about everything they don’t know,” said Dan Zitterbart, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
But it is a fleeting fascination with the emperors, who move quickly from the fixed body. The penguins are separated by a robot, which acts like a moving antenna for an observatory that monitors about 300 of them each year.
In the study, the authors suggest that emperor penguins should be listed as threatened under the United States’ Endangered Species Act.
“Emperor penguins live in delicate balance with their environment, and there is an area of sea ice (Goldilocks),” study author Stephanie Jenoverrier, a seabird ecologist and associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said in a statement. “If there is too little sea ice, the chicks can drown when the sea ice breaks early; if there is a lot of sea ice, the foraging journeys become very long and arduous, and the chicks may starve.”
Chicks should shed their feathers before planting the waterproof feathers they use for swimming – but if they are still covered down when the ice breaks, they will drown.
As the largest of predators, emperor penguins act as watchdog species, which means they are ideal species for study in a fickle ecosystem because they can detect if something is wrong. By studying these birds, Zitterbart and his team can learn about the effects of the climate crisis in Antarctica.
Surprisingly, not much is known about these penguins because Antarctica is not the easiest place for scientists to get to. While it was important to learn more about the penguins and their ecosystem, the team didn’t want to introduce a harmful human footprint into an already vulnerable environment or negatively impact the colony.
The successful trial run of ECHO this year already shows how this can be possible.
Capturing 5-month-old penguins is easy because they are manageable and “very foolish,” said Céline Le Bohque, a researcher at the Scientific Center in Monaco and the Hubert Corin Interdisciplinary Institute at the University of Strasbourg.
The research team uses small barriers to protect other penguins from seeing the process. Adult penguins focus entirely on feeding their chicks when they return from the sea, so fortunately they are not so focused on the researchers.
She said it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to tag each chick. Attaching the fin or using glue to attach the sensor can be harmful, so they use five to seven small strips of special tape to attach the sensor under the chick’s feathers.
The use of passive integrated transceivers and radio frequency identification systems can allow remote monitoring of penguins. But the tiny sensors that penguins wear don’t have their own power supply, so they can only be read from a distance of one or two metres.
This is where ECHO comes in. The robot acts as a receiving station because it is mounted with wireless receivers, and automatically retrieves data from the penguins’ sensors.
The robot is a complement to the SPOT, or Single Penguin Observation and Tracking Observatory, which was deployed in 2013. The observatory is adjacent to the colony and near Neumayer III Station, the German research base in Antarctica. It is equipped with 16 cameras that can take pictures of individual penguins, as well as the entire colony, over an area of 9.7 square miles (25 square kilometers).
With ECHO, they will not miss the opportunity to collect data when the birds return to the colony to feed their chicks. They no longer have to use SPOT to search a crowd of 20,000 birds to find tagged birds because ECHO captures them automatically.
By tracking and studying penguin behavior over time, researchers can observe how these animals are adapting to changing their environment due to climate change. Microchipping of the penguins allows the team to determine where the penguins go as they dive from sea ice in the ocean and understand their foraging strategies. This insight can help determine the size of MPAs.
During the winter, ECHO can basically be part of the huge penguin gathering that gather together as they try to protect themselves from the elements. It sits downwind and checks on penguins without requiring energy to move or spin. In the summer, Zitterbart said, the colony “fades away.” Next, the robot needs to move – albeit very slowly to prevent it from attracting the attention of the penguins. The robot has lidar, or light detection and rangefinding, so it can detect obstacles while moving with the colony.
Zitterbart said the first trip of the European Community Humanitarian Office this year was considered “Year Zero”. Now that the researchers know the robot is possible, and that it is part of a program that received funding from the National Science Foundation, they can apply the lessons learned.
The robot has managed to withstand temperatures as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius) in Antarctica so far.
The team learned that the ECHO isn’t great in tight turns, and can get stuck in the snow. The sea ice condition is driveable until about mid-December, when summer begins and the ice becomes very fine. The researchers are working on ECHO algorithms to ensure that when the robot drives itself, it can figure out how to get rid of it.
But the most important thing scientists have learned is that penguins are not afraid of ECHO or any of the little noises they make. When an ECHO is driving, it is moving slower than a human walk.
“You have to be really careful, and we try to do more science with less pressure,” Zitterbart said.
Researchers always warn of stress on the birds and the colony. In contrast, the additional stress could bias their results, Le Bohk said.
Zitterbart said the research taking place in the Gulf of Atca has become an interdisciplinary effort that has brought scientists of all kinds together, “and none of us can manage it alone.”
Zitterbart and his colleagues usually stay for six to eight weeks each year. His favorite time to be there is in April or September, during the Antarctic winter, when there are “gazillion-colored in the sky every day.” And with only nine other people at the research station, the place is nice and quiet.
Live indicators of change
If the population of the top predator begins to decline, this indicates that many other species are declining as well.
“It’s an interesting species because it amplifies and accumulates all the modifications in the ecosystem,” said Le Boehk.
Long-term monitoring can reveal if there are any changes in where the penguins swim as they forage for food or any other behaviors that could indicate a shift in the ecosystem.
For example, the Atka Bay colony has now started its breeding cycle after a month, which means it needs sea ice for much longer. Rising temperatures could wipe out sea ice too early in the season, which could force the penguins to move elsewhere that might not support their huge colony.
“The biodiversity in the Southern Ocean is so small, compared to the more temperate regions of the world, that losing any species there is kind of devastating,” Zitterbart said.
Watching thousands of penguins in the Atca Bay, Zitterbert is amazed when he considers the fact that they thrive in a hostile icy desert.
“Evolution is able to populate every other place on the planet and eventually bring an animal capable of surviving in this region,” he said. “It’s amazing to me every time I come back.”