Wildlife biology can be tricky business. In order to study different animals in their natural habitat you must get close to them. Getting close to them can cause them to act in an unnatural way- potentially defeating the purpose of the research. More and more often biologists are finding ways to use technology to aid them in obtaining the data they need in less intrusive ways. Scientists studying Emperor penguin populations found that they could use robotic rovers to get up-close without causing stress amongst the penguins. In order to read the tags used in wildlife monitoring studies, scientists need to get within 60 centimeters (2 feet) of the animals. When scientists try to get this close to the penguins, it elevates their heart rate. They found if they sent in a rover, in this case a rover disguised as a penguin chick, (or robochick) the penguins reacted the same way they do when another penguin walks by. The penguins even tried to vocalize with the robochick.
Robotics can also help scientists to understand wildlife physiology. Researchers at Georgia Tech were studying the locomotion of sea turtle hatchlings over different substrates. During the research the students observed that the hatchlings used a particular motion of the wrist of their fin to move effectively over the loose sand and gravel. Back at the lab they engineered a robotic turtle or "flipperbot" to examine how this motion might help the turtle move over different types of terrain. The idea is to use what they have found in the lab to predict what they might see in nature, and then make further observations to see if these predictions come true. Additionally, there are applications in robotics and engineering that can be derived from learning about effective motion in wildlife.
Robotics is certainly only one of the ways technology is used in wildlife biology. GPS tracking, motion cameras and other devices have made observing animals in less invasive, and in turn, more accurate ways possible. The possibilities are endless when we are willing to reach across disciplines and use all the tools available to us.
Wildlife Biology and Robotics Resources