ECHO, The Robot Lives In The Antarctic Penguin Colony, Trying To Save Them

ECHO, The Robot Lives In The Antarctic Penguin Colony, Trying To Save Them

According to CNN, thousands of emperor penguins cluster in Atka Bay, Antarctica, unaware that a stranger lives among them. This interloper is nothing but an autonomous robot ECHO, 3-foot-tall, which is slightly shorter than the average adult emperor penguins. The robot, lacking distinctive or interesting features as compared to humans who sometimes emerge from the nearby research station, sits silently in the colony of emperor penguins. 

Sometimes Penguins notice ECHO, which is an unnamed and remote-controlled ground vehicle, because “they have a curiosity to know everything that they don’t know.” stated Dan Zitterbart, associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. However, ECHO is a passing fascination for the emperor penguins who barely notice status objects and quickly pass through to them. The robot acts like a mobile antenna for observation and opportunely penguins are unphased by it. 

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Why Emperor Penguins?

ECHO, The Robot Lives In The Antarctic Penguin Colony, Trying To Save Them

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Penguins reign supremely at the south pole of our planet and they have no particular predators, but climate change is a big threat to their existence. According to a study published last year, in the journal Global Change Biology, continued emission of greenhouse gasses leads to the temperature rise and eventually melting of polar ice caps including Antarctica. It can decrease 98% of the emperor penguin population by 2100 century, which is a huge threat to the whole ecosystem. 

As per the study, many researchers suggest that emperor penguins should be listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act. The study of the author Stephanie Jenouvrier who is a seabird ecologist and associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution explained that Emperor penguins live in a balanced environment where there is a sea “Goldilocks’ zone”. If there is little ice, chicks can drown and if there is too much sea ice, either they will have to forage for too long or may starve. A penguin chick is covered in down and they must shed their down before growing the waterproof feathers to swim. If their downs are not shed till the ice breaks, they’ll sink and die. 

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ECHO, The Robot Lives In The Antarctic Penguin Colony, Trying To Save Them

Emperor penguins are ideal species to study the fluctuating ecosystem because their habitat can reveal if something is wrong. Zitterbart and his team are gathering information about the impacts of the climate crisis in Antarctica, by studying the emperor penguin. 

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Though little is known about these penguins because Antarctica is not an easily accessible place for scientists, they are trying to study more without harming them. Human footprints can adversely affect the colony, but it’s crucial to learn more about the penguins and their ecosystem. Hence, ECHO was left there and its successful trial opens up considerable ways to study penguins and their behavior.

Zitterbart and other researchers have been studying and tagging the Emperor penguins since 2017. In order to determine the health of the Antarctic Marine Ecosystem through monitoring the emperor penguins, the MARE Project has been running for over 30 years. 

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Microchipping of Penguins

ECHO, The Robot Lives In The Antarctic Penguin Colony, Trying To Save Them

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A researcher at the Scientific Centre of Monaco said that capturing the 5-month-old penguin chicks is easy because they are amenable to handling.

It’s easy to tag them because after returning from the sea, the adult penguins entirely focus on feeding their chicks, hence they overlook the researchers. Moreover, the research team uses small barriers to shield the other penguins from seeing the process. 

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They do not use flipper banding or glue to attach the sensor, as it can be harmful to them. Therefore, they use five to seven small strips of special tape, not causing any harm, to attach the sensor under the chick’s feathers. 

How does ECHO help?

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ECHO, The Robot Lives In The Antarctic Penguin Colony, Trying To Save Them

As the sensors worn by the penguins are small and they don’t have their own supply, they can only be read from about one to two meters away. The receiving stations are far from the penguin colonies, and here the ECHO comes in. 

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ECHO acts like a receiving station as it is mounted with wireless receivers and can automatically retrieve data from the penguin’s sensors. The robot doesn’t miss out on a single chance to collect data when the birds return to the colony to feed their chicks. 

By tagging and monitoring penguins over time, the researchers can observe the effects of climatic changes on these animals and their habitat. Most importantly, penguins have accepted the robot among them.

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