Rory Wilson and the Magnetic Penguins

In the last of our shortlisted entries to the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, Mike Jones explains the inventions a researcher is using to map the lives of penguins.

It’s early May. I am sitting with 15 other Oxford biology students in a seminar, as part of a course on ecology and conservation. The room is dark and hot, with the last of the afternoon sunlight streaming through a narrow gap in the curtains. 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.”

Rory Wilson Magnetic Penguins

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 resulting in him having three or four of them in his back garden, magnetically (and, I hasten to add, accidentally) affixed by their bottoms to a nearby piece of corrugated iron.

Thankfully, Wilson is not a deranged lunatic; he is a biologist who specialises in the study of hard-to-observe animals, using a variety of bizarre and ingenious devices. It is relatively easy to watch the behaviour of large, 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 observe by conventional means. Sadly, there will probably never be a Jane Goodall of sperm whales – if we are to learn anything, we must be creative.

This is where Wilson and his colleagues come in. They study animal behaviour through remote observation, by attaching (and eventually retrieving) tiny contraptions to animals that record detailed information about their activities. One such invention is a bit of engineering wizardry called the ‘Daily Diary’. This is a tiny, 30 gram cylinder that contains, among other gadgets, a triaxial accelerometer – a device that measures acceleration along three axes (up, down, and side-to-side). This information can be used to map animal movement on a fine scale, be it the soaring spiral of a vulture catching a thermal or 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 attaches 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 large it is.

There is also a parallel device called a ‘bumometer’ – hence Wilson’s backyard R&D with magnetic suppositories. The bumometer measures the obvious bodily function in addition to heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate. These enable accurate estimates of energy expenditure, giving us an idea of the cost of particular behaviours. It turns out that penguins catch fish fairly effortlessly, using 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. This information gives us insight into the inner workings of ecological systems that humans’ activities threaten to disrupt or destroy. The more we know about ecosystems, the greater 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’s a stunning reconstruction, based purely on remote monitoring data and landscape data from Google maps. The dream is to weave together these threads of information, creating open-access digital movies of real animals going about their lives in exquisite detail. This is an amazing prospect, and a rare example of technology bringing us closer to the natural world rather than distancing us from it.

Mike Jones

This is an edited version of Mike’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.