Robot monitors emperor penguins up close | Polarjournal
Emperor penguins are particularly vulnerable to climate change. If the fast ice disappears, their breeding sites are also lost. Already, some colonies have had to find new, safer locations. But this is not possible everywhere in Antarctica. Photo: Heiner Kubny

The emperor penguins in Atka Bay, not far from the German Antarctic station Neumayer III, are probably among the best observed emperor penguins at present. Since 2013,more than a dozen different cameras have already been monitoring their colony from a distance. Only recently, researchers from Jena tested drones that could collect population data from the colony in the future (we reported). Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts now want to use a remote-controlled robot to spy on emperor penguins up close, retrieve data from tagged animals and send it directly to the office.

As part of the MARE project (Monitor the health of the Antarctic maRine ecosystems using the Emperor penguin as a sentinel), Daniel Zitterbart of WHOI and his team are assessing the vulnerability of Antarctic ecosystems using the Emperor penguin as a sentinel species. Since the food chain in Antarctica is relatively short (phytoplankton – zooplankton (mainly krill) – penguins, seals, whales – orcas, leopard seals), changes in krill, for example, can affect the health of emperor penguins. Hence, the team hopes to learn more about the potential for emperor penguins to adapt to climate change and predict associated fluctuations in prey abundance and distribution.

However, researching emperor penguins is extremely difficult, very time-consuming and expensive. In addition, the penguins’ inhospitable habitat does not allow researchers to stay with the colony for an extended period of time to collect data.

The robot ECHO moves very slowly in the colony and finds penguins already equipped with a transmitter and data loggers. Photo: Twitter/echo_rover

Daniel Zitterbart and his colleague Céline Le Bohec from the Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien have therefore developed the remote-controlled robot ECHO, which uses LIDAR and a 360° camera to track penguins completely autonomously and read out their previously implanted RFID chip (similar to those used for pets) without the scientists having to be on site. “It’s supposed to drive around by itself in the Antarctic, knowing where the penguins are and very slowly try to scan individual penguins or scan groups of penguins. That is how we know where penguins are,” Zitterbart said.

At the same time, the permanently installed SPOT(Single Penguin Observationand Tracking) camera observatory detects the colony’s locations and tells the robot where to go.

Zitterbart’s team has fitted 300 chicks with transmitters each year since the MARE project began in 2017, and more than 1,000 penguins have now been tagged. Tracking the tagged penguins is much easier with ECHO and also gentler on the animals, as they do not have to be found and recaptured in the colony of 26,000 penguins to read the chip. In the coming years, the team will continue to tag 300 chicks annually so ECHO can track them and provide researchers with more data. The implanted transmitters allow scientists to track the entire lives of the tagged penguins.

ECHO has already spent eight weeks at the emperor penguin colony, taking photos and videos of the animals and recording tagged animals. ECHO sends the data to SPOT, from which researchers have had a view of the entire colony via various cameras since 2013.

“The Antarctic is lagging behind in studying the impacts of climate change compared to the Arctic and our northern latitudes,” Zitterbart says. “The long-term goal if this project works is to put new SPOTs and ECHOs in locations where we haven’t been.”

To extend ECHO’s operational life, Zitterbart hopes to have solar garages for the robot in the next four years to recharge its batteries.

The MARE project will monitor emperor penguins in Atka Bay over the next 30 years. The first complete data set will be available in 2026. Data can play an important role in determining the size of marine protected areas.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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