How The 'Fembot' Helps Researchers Understand Sage Grouse

Sep 11, 2015

When it comes to understanding the biology of greater sage grouse, the male birds get most of the attention.

They are famous for their extravagant and unusual mating dance on the leks (the species' mating grounds), where they strut around and puff out their chests to expose yellow air sacs, which make an otherworldly popping sound. Biology students from high school to graduate school have studied their quirks. Check out the slow-mo action at the end of this video to get a sense of just how much they'll do to get the attention of the hens.

But although they're less flashy than their male counterparts, the survival of this waning species depends just as much on the hens. The females are in charge of raising the chicks, so their drab brownish coloration plays an evolutionary role as well: it camouflages the birds in sagebrush country to protect them from predators. The hens are incredibly selective, and only a small percentage of males are successful in mating with them.

To University of California Davis evolutionary biologist Gail Patricelli, the nuances in sage grouse sexual selection have given her lots to study in the last 10 years. She says she was interested in learning how hens can favor social skills among male grouse, as well as elaborate mating displays. To better understand their behaviors, Patricelli unleashed the fembots.

No, not those fembots. These:

"I usually say fembot, though someone got started calling them 'henbots' and it's a pretty good name," laughs Patricelli.

The researcher built the first robotic hen — complete with a camera and recording device — to run experiments while in the bird's natural environment in Wyoming.

"It allows us to study the communication between males and females, because we can basically control one side of the conversation."

After the first version of the robot, Patricelli wanted to see how males would react to robots that could mimic the pecking and foraging behaviors of real hens. So she created fembot 2.0, which is more mobile than the version that was confined to the toy-sized train tracks. 

Patricelli and her students have run a number of field experiments using the fembots. Right now they are looking at how the birds forage while they're on the lek, and how that impacts their behavior around the mating ritual.

"And this tells us a lot about how they use the habitat, and what's important in terms of keeping the habitat good and productive for them so they have plenty of good food to eat."

Research like this has helped inform conservation plans across the 11 states where the species lives. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by the end of the month whether to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Check out our 'Saving the Sage Grouse' series for more on that issue.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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