Rory Wilson and the Magnetic Penguins

The Wellcome Trust has just posted my science writing prize entry (with minor edits, including a couple added typos). Here’s the unedited original:

It’s early May. Along with 15 other Oxford biology students, I am in a seminar as part of a course on ecology and conservation. The room is dark and hot, and the last of the afternoon sunlight streams through a narrow gap in the curtains. But all eyes are fixed on Rory Wilson, a professor visiting from Swansea University. “After we’d made the magnets small enough to fit in their bums,” he explains, “the difficult part was figuring out how powerful to make them.”

Curiosity drives people to do strange things. Isaac Newton famously inserted a long needle into his eye socket, carefully noting the effects upon his vision. Charles Darwin covered his billiards table in earthworms and besieged them with tobacco smoke and bassoon music, just to see what would happen. Professor Wilson’s curiosity about penguins is how he ended up with three or four of them in his backyard, magnetically (and accidentally) affixed by their bottoms to a nearby piece of corrugated iron.

I have been obscure; let me explain. Wilson is not a deranged lunatic, he is a biologist who specialises in studying hard-to-observe animals using a variety of bizarre and ingenious devices. It is relatively easy to watch the behaviour of conspicuous, terrestrial animals like buffalos or chimpanzees. However, animals that spend their lives underground, under water or in the air – in other words, most animals – are impractical or impossible to study by conventional means. Sadly, there will probably never be a Jane Goodall of sperm whales. If we are to learn anything at all about what, say, walruses do under water, we must be creative.

This is where Wilson and his colleagues come in. They study animal behaviour through remote observation, by attaching (and, with luck, eventually retrieving) tiny contraptions that record detailed information about an animal’s activities. One such invention is a bit of engineering wizardry called the “Daily Diary.” The Daily Diary is a tiny, 30-gram cylinder that contains, among other gadgets, a triaxial accelerometer – a device that measures and records acceleration along three axes (up, down, and side- to-side). This information encodes animal movement on a fine scale, from the soaring spiral of a vulture catching a thermal to the sudden lunge of a penguin catching a squid.

How do we know that it was, in fact, a squid? Wilson has developed a device called a “beakometer” that consists of a tiny magnet and a transducer; one attached to the lower half of the beak, one to the upper. The transducer responds to the strength of the magnetic field, recording the opening and shutting of the beak. This conveys a surprising amount of information, since activities such as breathing and eating leave unique, identifiable signatures in the data. By analysing the erratic patterns in a spidery line graph you can tell whether a penguin is swallowing a fish or a squid, and even how big the prey is. There is also a parallel device called a “bumometer” – hence Wilson’s backyard R&D with magnetic suppositories.

The bumometer measures not only the obvious bodily function, but also heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate. These enable accurate estimates of energy expenditure, giving us an idea of the energetic cost of particular behaviours. Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that penguins catch fish fairly effortlessly. They use their natural buoyancy to swoop up at fish from below, as graceful in water as they are ungainly on land. (I have focused here on penguins, Wilson’s specialty, but these devices can be used on virtually any large animal).

What is the point of all this information? Is it merely gratuitous voyeurism? Not at all. It gives us insight into the inner workings of ecological systems that humans activities threaten to disrupt or destroy. The more we know about these ecosystems, the better our understanding of how to minimise our own impact upon them.

However, it is not only the practical applications that matter. At the heart of remote monitoring is a deep curiosity about life on earth; a profound aesthetic appreciation that remains undiminished even after nature has been translated into digital information. At the end of the seminar Professor Wilson shows us an early animation from his next project; a short 3-D film of a leatherback turtle swimming past an enormous seamount. It is a splendid reconstruction, based purely on remote monitoring data and landscape data from Google maps. Ultimately, Wilson’s idea is to weave together these threads of information, creating open-access digital movies of real animals going about their lives in exquisite detail.

It is an amazing prospect, and a rare example of technology bringing us closer to the natural world rather than distancing us from it.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Rory Wilson and the Magnetic Penguins

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