A tiny grey robotic penguin with four, thick, snow-ready black wheels is helping scientists to understand the species' behaviour.
As emperor penguins are notoriously shy creatures, they retreat when researchers approach them – causing their heart rates to rise and interfering with data on their health.
To tackle this problem, a team of scientists and film-makers led by Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France created a remote control rover disguised as a chick. The cunningly designed robot can easily sidle up to penguins without scaring them away.
The robot has been deployed in Adelie Land, Antarctica, where the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins was filmed, and allowed researchers to study the animals from over 650 feet (200 meters) away.
But to create the successful bot, scientists endured a process of trial an error, with the first disguised version of the rover, made of fibreglass scaring the real birds, Le Maho said.
Researchers tried about five versions before they found their final design which is covered in grey fur, sports black arms, and has a black-and-white painted face and black beak.
"The penguins did not scamper away and even sang to it with “a very special song like a trumpet,” Le Maho said.
Le Maho suggested that the adult penguins were trying to find a mate for their chicks and they were listening for a response, but researchers didn't program the rover to make a sound.
“They were very disappointed when there was no answer,” Le Maho said. “Next time we will have a rover playing songs.”
At other times, the rover crowded in with a group of chicks, acting as “a spy in the huddle,” Le Maho said.
Le Maho also used a rover without any animal disguise to spy on king penguins and elephant seals because those animals do not flee from strangers.
Even though the king penguins attacked the small rover with their beaks when it moved, it allowed the device to get close enough to get readings. Meanwhile, the large lumbering elephant were not disturbed when the rover zipped by and around them.
In the future, the researchers plan to use a more autonomous robot to spy on the emperor penguins. The idea is to use devices on the rover to read signals from radio tags on the birds.
The study is published Sunday by the journal 'Nature Methods'.
Additional reporting by AP