Thousands of emperor penguins cluster on the ice of Atka Bay in Antarctica, mostly unaware that an interloper lives among them.
Slightly shorter than the average adult emperor, the 3-foot-tall (1-meter-tall) autonomous robot sits silently within the colony, nondescript compared with humans who sometimes emerge from a nearby research station.
The birds occasionally notice ECHO, an unmanned and remote-controlled ground vehicle, because “they exhibit curiosity to everything that they don’t know,” said Dan Zitterbart, associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
But it’s a passing fascination for the emperors, who quickly move on from the static object. The penguins are unphased by the robot, which acts like a mobile antenna for an observatory monitoring about 300 of them each year.
At the South Pole of our planet, penguins reign supreme, and they have no predators on land. But the climate crisis could threaten their very existence. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rates, leading to warming temperatures and melting Antarctic sea ice, 98% of the emperor penguin population could all but disappear by 2100, according to a study published last year in the journal Global Change Biology.
In the study, the authors suggest that emperor penguins should be listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act.
“Emperor penguins live in a delicate balance with their environment, there is a sea ice ‘Goldilocks’ zone,” said study author Stephanie Jenouvrier, seabird ecologist and associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in a statement. “If there is too little sea ice, chicks can drown when sea ice breaks up early; if there is too much sea ice, foraging trips become too long and more arduous, and the chicks may starve.”
The chicks must shed their down before growing the waterproof feathers they use to swim – but if they are still covered in down when the ice breaks, they’ll sink.
As top predators, emperor penguins serve as sentinel species, meaning they are ideal species to study in a fluctuating ecosystem because they can reveal if something is wrong. By studying these birds, Zitterbart and his team can learn about the impacts of the climate crisis in Antarctica.
Surprisingly little is known about these penguins because Antarctica isn’t the easiest place for scientists to access. Although it’s crucial to learn more about the penguins and their ecosystem, the team didn’t want to introduce a harmful human footprint in an already vulnerable environment or adversely affect the colony.
A successful trial run of ECHO this year is already showing how that may be possible.