As so often, it was reader and science communicator Amy Carparelli (@AmyAmylou1993 on Twitter) who brought this to my attention.
John Nolan is making animatronic animals at his studio in London for use as spy animals. They’re for use in the filming of an upcoming documentary series.
Spy Pup by John Downer
The first is a meerkat pup, which the video says has taken months to design and build. They obviously have to make the animatronic animals look as realistic as possible so the real animals will act normally around them.
McVittie’s Jaffa Cakes
Previous work by Nolan includes the cute little tarsier in the British McVittie’s jaffa cakes advert.
Knurt the Troll of WitchWorld
Nolan is also responsible for this amazing creature, Knurt the troll. He’s now on display at the WitchWorld theme park in Monsteras, Sweden. I can’t believe how lifelike he is. (Or how much he reminds me of someone I know! 🙂 )
John Nolan is clearly an astonishing talent and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Just click on the link on his name at the top if you want to see more example of his work.
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There has been a flurry of such programmes on the Beeb for the last few months, and a previous one a year or two ago (ISTR a “PenguinCam” episode). I guess they’re now being sold to the rest of the world.
There have been criticisms of the science behind them. Even realistic-looking (to us) imitations probably look very fake to the target animals. In robotics, aimed at humans, they describe an idea called “uncanny valley”, where as machines become more humanoid, they actually become more disturbing to human viewers. It’s also fairly significantly variable with culture – the Japanese seem to be much less disturbed by (or more willing to make) teenage-schoolgirl-bots than would be acceptable in the West.
It’s reasonable to anticipate that other species would be disturbed by something that looks somewhat like a species member, but which moves extremely jerkily, doesn’t smell right, doesn’t make the right noises at the right times, and has all the incorrect social cues of a Japanese business magnate at St Trinians. Certainly such charges have been laid against the “Spy Animals” type programmes, and such questions dog the scientific usefulness of using such technologies for observing “undisturbed behaviour” of the animals in question. In comparison, a boring camera-in-a-box type of “trail cam” rarely elicits more than a disinterested sniff before the target animals classify the camera under “inedible, non-threatening” and ignore it.
I haven’t watched many of the programmes, because they don’t really interest me (and I normally like “nature” programmes). However I think there was a bit of a fuss a week or two back over a “lemur cam” in which programme many people identified a plethora of alarm calls and signs of distress in the footage released.
No doubt they’re good programmes – the BBC have been doing this sort of thing for a half-century or more and have built a huge pool of freelancer talent they and the rest of the world can draw on – but for some reason, not my cup of tea. Or coffee. Or carob.
I saw a clip earlier in the week in which an elephant spent some time checking out a tortoise cam before crushing it. I think the elephant had sussed it wasn’t real.
I wonder if other animals can tell it’s not real more by scent than appearance. I bet a plushy with the animal’s scent would work better than a realistic puppet w/o the scent. Just a theory which is mine.
Cool work all the same. Thanks for the post Heather!
Yes, mammals in general are more into smell than vision. Moreover, a meerkat poses special problems. Meerkats are highly social and apparently they have the highest intraspecies killing rates of all.
I suspect that if ‘recognised’ as another meerkat it will quickly be killed.
If not recognised as a meerkat, and habituated as non threatening, one might just as well sit, walk and film with the troops.
Nevertheless, absolutely wonderful robotics!
From a science perspective the spy animals allow us to:
1: The opportunity to see wildlife up close and personal without alerting the animals/creatures so we can observe their behaviour in their natural habitat (including travelling with them as they move).
2: We get to study how animals interact with each other.
3: To observe and study how the animals react/behave towards the animatronic animals. As seen with spy otter, spy penguins, spy tortoise and many others.
Being able to view amazing footage up close.
“The aim of this series was to capture these elusive moments where animals do something so extraordinary that it makes us consider our own connection with the natural world.”
John Downer, Executive Producer of ‘Spy In The Wild’
Just finished watching Nature series on our PBS station. They featured these spy animals and managed to get incredible footage. Sometimes technology can be a good thing for nature.