Spy tech and rigged eggs help scientists study the secret lives of animals

Last week, The New York Times went backstage at the Oregon Zoo for an intimate look at the fake eggs the zoo was developing as a part of its endangered Condor nursery program. 

The idea is that caretakers can swap out the real eggs the birds lay for smart egg spies that look and feel the same. These specially designed, 3D-printed eggs have been equipped with sensors that can monitor the general environment of the nest and the natural behaviors of the California condor parents (like how long they sat on the egg for, and when they switched off between parents). 

In addition to recording data related to surrounding temperature and movement, there’s also a tiny audio recorder that can capture ambient sounds. So what’s the use of the whole charade? 

The Oregon Zoo’s aim is to use all the data gathered by the egg to better recreate natural conditions within their artificial incubators, whether that has to do with adjusting the temperatures they set these machines to, integrating periodic movements, or play back the sounds from the nest, which will ideally improve the outcomes from its breeding efforts. And it’s not the only group tinkering with tech like this.

A ‘spy hippo’

This setup at the Oregon Zoo may sound vaguely familiar to you, if you’ve been a fan of the PBS show “Spy in the Wild.” The central gag of the series is that engineers craft hyper-realistic robots masquerading as animals, eggs, boulders, and more to get up close and personal with a medley of wildlife from all reaches of the planet. 

[Related: Need to fight invasive fish? Just introduce a scary robot]

If peeking at the inner lives of zoo animals is a task in need of an innovative tech solution, imagine the challenges of studying animals in their natural habitats, in regions that are typically precarious or even treacherous for humans to visit. Add on cameras and other heavy equipment, and it becomes an even more demanding trip. Instead of having humans do the Jane Goodall method of community immersion with animals, these spies in disguise can provide invaluable insights into group or individual behavior and habits without being intrusive or overly invasive to their ordinary way of life.  

A penguin rover

Testing unconventional methods like these is key for researchers to understand as much as they can about endangered animals, since scientists have to gather important information in a relatively short time frame to help with their conservation. 

[Related: Open data is a blessing for science—but it comes with its own curses

To prove that these inventions are not all gimmick and have some practical utility, a 2014 study in Nature showed that a penguin-shaped rover can get more useful data on penguin colonies than human researchers, whose presence elevated stress levels in the animals. 

The point of all this animal espionage?

Minimizing the effects created by human scientists has always been a struggle in behavioral research for the natural sciences. Along with the advancement of other technologies like better cameras and more instantaneous data transfer, ingenious new sensor devices like the spy eggs are changing the field itself. The other benefit is that every once in a while, non-scientist humans can also be privy to the exclusive access provided into the secret lives of these critters, like through “Spy in the Wild,” and use these as portals for engaging with the world around them.

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