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Infiltrating poison frog families with TadBots. (A) Frogs enter the puddles with their heads turned away from the tadpole. (B) Juvenile tadpoles, approx. 3/4 of frog’s length, approaches the frog’s vent to beg. (C) Parents attempt to coordinate TadBot care. (D) Typical experimental chamber with camera #1 positioned above TadBot can #2; the capsules are identical to those used for biological offspring. Credit: Chen et al. / Photos A–B courtesy of Daniel Shaykevich

Over the past few decades, roboticists have developed robots inspired by a wide variety of animals, including dogs, snakes, birds, spiders, bats, octopuses, and different types of insects. These robots were primarily designed to tackle practical problems, such as entering tight spaces, moving over uneven terrain, or flying reliably over long distances.

A team of researchers at Stanford University recently developed a small robot that looks like a tadpole and then used it to study the breeding behavior of poison dart frogs (R. imitator), a species of poisonous and brightly colored frogs native to Central and South America. Their paper, published on arXiv preprint server, made some very interesting observations, both in terms of how the frogs reacted to the robot and their behavior with their offspring.

“Animal models offer a treasure trove of how organisms respond and adapt to ecological stress,” Billie C. Goolsby, one of the researchers who conducted the study, told “We are interested in poison dart frogs because they show enormous behavioral diversity, particularly in terms of parental care. Because many frogs recognize space rather than direct kin (i.e., however, face recognition), we can opportunistically manage tadpole pools, or nursery, with robots. tares to see how parents respond to changes in offspring signals. For many other species this is not possible, because parents know relatives directly or there are other signals we have to account for, such as sibling rivalry.”

Some previous studies also attempted to introduce robotic frogs into the same environment as real frogs, usually to observe their social behavior and decision-making. However, Goolsby and his colleagues wanted to investigate specifically whether the beet-like robot would in any way affect the breeding behavior of poisonous frogs.

One behavior of particular interest to them is the tendency of poison frog mothers to release unfertilized eggs and pass them to their offspring, after the latter exhibit “begging” behavior (i.e. approach the frog’s back while vigorously swinging their tails). . They also wanted to study the behavior of frog fathers, who generally inspect nurseries and evaluate offspring, to determine which ones are in greater need of feeding.

“The particular species we’re studying evolved maternal protection, which is where mothers release a meal of unfertilized eggs to begging offspring,” Goolsby explained. “Maternal provisioning is coordinated with paternal calling, with fathers also monitoring nursery areas to assess offspring. We study parental visitation, paternal calling, and maternal provisioning as aspects of parental effort in this species.”

To carry out their experiments, the researchers first created a small robot that can mimic the tadpoles’ jerky body movements. They then introduced this robot inside a large aquarium tank with father and mother poison frogs, remotely controlling their movements so that they replicated the begging behavior of the tadpoles.

“A motor outside our robot turns a crank, which pulls a string attached to the robot,” said Tony G. Chen, another scientist involved in the study. “So this, along with the suspension part inside the robot, pulls and pushes the TadBot’s tail, which produces the swinging motion. The main advantage of this setup is that it allows the TadBot to be very small, close to the size of a real tadpole.”

The robot created by Goolsby, Chen and their colleagues resembles tadpoles in size, appearance and movements. In particular, its motor can be mounted outside the aquarium tank to prevent the noise it produces from attracting the attention of the frogs or interfering with their normal activities.

The researchers found that the robot “passed the test” and fooled the parent frogs, especially the father frogs, who seemed to treat it as if it were one of their offspring. In many cases, when the toad-like robots began to “beg” and wag their tails vigorously, the fathers tried to coordinate care and called the mothers to the nursery so they could give the robots unfertilized eggs.

Interestingly, while the mothers answered the call and visited the tadpole nursery, they did not release the unfertilized eggs, suggesting that they somehow realized that the robots were not offspring. In their paper, the researchers suggest that mothers may rely on additional cues when trying to decide whether or not to lay eggs, such as vibrations or other subtle movements.

“We hope our work can provide a toolbox that can be used to manipulate offspring signals, inform us how vibrational cues can be represented in amphibians, and where parental decision-making occurs in the brain,” Goolsby said. “By combining these findings, we can begin to better understand the origins and evolution of the neural circuits involved in parenting.”

A recent study by Goolsby, Chen and their colleagues shows the great potential of robots to safely study the social behavior of animals. In the future, it could inspire new works aimed at developing bio-robots, using them to interact with different animal species and observe the resulting behavior.

“We are now going to mechanically improve TadBot to be more like a real tadpole based on the data we have been collecting, while conducting further behavioral studies,” added Chen.

More information:
Tony G. Chen et al., Feed Me: Robotic Infiltration of Poison Frog Families, arXiv (2023). DOI: 10.48550/arxiv.2305.14570

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