Ausgabe 20/2005

The High Tech Animal World Turning Penguins into Rocket Scientists

Tiny data recorders attached to the beaks, bellys and fins of penguins, seals, turtles and whales are revolutionizing the field of behavioral research. They monitor the life and metabolism of animals every tenth of a second. They can even say how long it takes to swallow a fish.


This penguin's life looks purely undisturbed. Truth is, he may have electronic sensors all over his little body.

This penguin's life looks purely undisturbed. Truth is, he may have electronic sensors all over his little body.

It's just past 10 a.m. and already the sensors are hard at work monitoring "Macho 73," a Magellan penguin swimming off the coast of Argentina. It takes the bird two seconds, the sensors report, to go from a speed of 2.2 to 3.5 meters a second. It dives at a school of sprats and, at a depth of 23.7 meters, it catches one. It then needs exactly 0.71 seconds to devour it. Barely a minute later, Macho 73 is back on the surface of the South Atlantic. Water rolls off his sleek body, which -- unknown to him -- is packed with high tech equipment. Even his beak and flippers have small sensors implanted in them.

"Macho 73" is swimming for science.

A day earlier, scientists in the south Argentinean penguin colony of Cabo Vergenes attached the complicated equipment to the Antarctic bird. Since then, every spilt second of his life has been monitored. "We can see when the penguin leaves its nest, how many steps it takes on the beach, how long it dives and where, and even what it eats," Rory Wilson, a marine ornithologist from the University of Wales, Swansea, says with delight. "No matter what the animal does, we keep track of it."

Digital technology has hit the field of behavioral research in a big way. And the good part is, the devices marine biologists are using to study the life of marine animals -- including penguins, whales, dolphins, turtles, octopi and seals -- are becoming smaller and more powerful. Until recently, scientists mainly used mini-transmitters to gain clues about what the animals were up to. Now, tiny mobile platforms placed on flipper, beak, wing or belly not only monitor their every movement, but also can give accurate readings of their heart rates and body temperatures. And from the pitch of whale songs to the amount an octopus' body recoils when it swims -- scientists are recording it all.

Enormous potential

"This technology has enormous potential for the ecological research on animals," says Canadian scientist Steven Cooke of the University of British Columbia. He even believes that the technology has heralded a new era in behavioral research. "We are in the midst of a revolution. For the first time, it is possible to take a miniature laboratory out into the open range."

Wilson is one of the pioneers in the so-called arena of bio-logging. His office in Swansea is piled high with massive amounts of electrical equipment. Before the stuff got deposited here, it got dragged through the ocean on the backs of emperor penguins and seals. Wilson first travelled to South Africa to study wild penguins 25 years ago. At the time, he tried to observe the birds while on board a ship. Not only was he perpetually sea sick, but he got very little inside information about the penguins. When he planted himself on the beach instead, he still didn't see much more than penguins hopping into the sea in the mornings. And then he had a flash of genius: What if he applied science for science? He quickly set about constructing the first recorder that could measure diving depth with a capillary tube.

Keiko's no longer the only film star among the whale population.

Keiko's no longer the only film star among the whale population.

Since then, technology has developed swiftly. And while sensors placed on animals were once big and bulky like the junk piled in Wilson's office, the equipment today resembles delicate pieces of micro-electronic art. Just one of Wilson's 50 gram mini-loggers can save up to 128 million pieces of data. Up to 30 times a minute, for example, it records the diving depth, speed or the opening angle of a penguin's beak. The devices can stay attached to the animals for months or even years until they are collected by the scientists. The reward: Insights into an alien world that until now was hidden in the depths of the oceans.

Here are just a few examples:

- Pressure sensors revealed that northern sea elephants dive up to 1,600 meters deep and can stay under water for up to two hours. Researchers believe future reports will soon prove that the fat giants even sleep under water.

- Mini-cameras attached to humpback whales recorded their long-mysterious hunting patterns. Their trick? They round up fish by emitting large bubbles of air as barriers and then attack from beneath.

- Logging devices allowed scientists to chart the record-breaking trek of north Pacific blue fin tunas, which travelled 18,000 nautical miles from Baja California to Japan and back.

- Sensors have proven that Antarctic Adelie penguins can hunt for 18 hours straight and never rest for more than 50 seconds. They drift through the water with up to five wing beats per second.

The Big Brother technology is particularly well-developed when it comes to penguins. But scientists are after more than just numbers on the underwater masters. "What's the rationale behind the penguins' behavior?" asks Wilson. His findings, so far, are astonishing.

Even before they dive into the water, the birds plan how deep they want to dive: If they are hunting a school of fish at a depth of 30 meters, they will only breathe in as much air as they need to hunt. More air would force them to battle against their own buoyancy, a practice they have clearly learned to avoid. Appetite is another area where they seem highly flexible. "If there is a lot of fish, the animals eat a lot, but their metabolism is low," Wilson reports. "If there is only a small amount of fish, their body digests it more effectively." This way the animals secure the long-term population of their prey.

Penguins don't like to be alone

These seals may be fun to watch, but scientists don't learn very much about their natural behaviour when they are behind glass.

These seals may be fun to watch, but scientists don't learn very much about their natural behaviour when they are behind glass.

Other scientists have tried to spy on marine animals with the aid of miniature cameras. The Japanese Akinori Takahashi, for example, from the University of Hokkaido, attaches mini cameras weighing only 73 grams to Chinstrap and Adelie penguins. These tiny paparazzi have shot more than 10,000 underwater pictures for Takahashi. The results made one thing clear: Penguins enjoy company while diving. They form groups of up to eleven animals to hunt.

A video camera offers even more immediate results when it comes to whale and seal activities. Researchers working with US-scientist Randall Davis monitored Waddell seals as they silently crept up on one and a half meter long Arctic cod and hunted them. When they targeted smaller fish, they followed them into cracks in the marine ice. "National Geographic" -- famous for its footage of animal life -- has also attached their so-called "Crittercam" to killer and blue whales, sea cows and white pointer sharks.

But the still-large video cameras illustrate a prime dilemma of bio-loggings. Is it really fair to strap these devices on the backs of the animals? How does a penguin feel when its torpedo-like figure has been ruined by data chips and wires?

Even the researchers, who make every effort towards miniaturization, admit that the technology in some way still gets in the way of the animals. They argue, though, that the flood of data will ultimately benefit marine wildlife and is therefore worth it.

"Only if we know exactly how the animals live and what they need for survival, we can protect them effectively," says Wilson.

Furthermore, there are economic reasons for the monitoring of the underwater artists. "If we want both man and animal to make use of the resources of the sea in future, we need exact information about the animals' hunting grounds and the food demands of these marine predators." Only with this information can, for instance, exact fishing quotas be established.

No more idle animals

Biologists are solidifying the connection between penguins and computers.

Biologists are solidifying the connection between penguins and computers.

Biologists, however, are optimistic that technology will continue to improve. They are even hoping to put tuna, whales and marine birds to work collecting oceanographic data. Wandering albatrosses, for instance, have already measured the water temperature of the Indian Ocean for scientists through miniature thermometers attached to their legs. And under the Arctic ice, white whales have collected data on salt content and temperature in deep regions.

The technology can also be used with land animals. "How often have biologists actually measured how much a lion devours or how fast cheetahs run?" asks Wilson. Like many other scientists, he used to be a "fair weather biologist" and for reasons of convenience only collected data on sunny days. Now, the new technology allows for a more thorough collection of data in all conditions.

Of course, there is no end to the fantasies of bio-loggers. "In the end it will be possible for us to reconstruct the exact movements of the animals and to have 3D-models of them on our computers," says Wilson. Consequently, the path would be clear for the most daring of all bio-logging dream: monitoring all wildlife as a whole.

"One day, all over the globe, masses of animals will be equipped with miniature transmitters and the data will then be aggregated on the Internet," says Wilson. Once aggregated, these bits and bytes will yield something fantastic: a constantly up-to-date "map of the biosphere," he says.


© DER SPIEGEL 20/2005
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