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A robotic tuatara in New Zealand

The tuatara, which is both related to lizards and snakes, is one of the planet's oldest reptile species, living in New Zealand for about 200 million years. Scientists still don't know much about their behavior, so they've asked Weta Workshop, a Wellington-based company known for its work on 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy, to build a robotic male tuatara. It is equipped with cameras which will help the researchers to discover how real male tuatara attract and keep females. The goal is to help conservation managers to the genetically fittest, most productive males. But what will happen if a female tuatara discovers that the robot is an impostor?
Written by Roland Piquepaille, Inactive on

The tuatara, which is both related to lizards and snakes, is one of the planet's oldest reptile species, living in New Zealand for about 200 million years. Scientists still don't know much about their behavior, so they've asked Weta Workshop, a Wellington-based company known for its work on 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy, to build a robotic male tuatara. It is equipped with cameras which will help the researchers to discover how real male tuatara attract and keep females. The goal is to help conservation managers to the genetically fittest, most productive males. But what will happen if a female tuatara discovers that the robot is an impostor?

Robo-Ollie, the tutuara

Here is a picture of 'Robo-Ollie', the robotic tutuara, in the hands of Jennifer Moore, a PhD Student at Victoria University of Wellington (Credit: Weta Workshop). You can see other pictures of this robotic creature in this photo gallery.

This robotic creature has been developed by Weta Workshop, located in Wellington, New Zealand, which designs special effects for movies such as 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy. 'Robo-Ollie' has been designed by Gino Acevedo, 'Senior Prosthetics Supervisor and Visual Creature Effects Art Director.' [Note: Have you seen such a long title on a business card?]

But let's go back to the article by Dave Hansford for National Geographic News for additional details.

"We needed a model we could manipulate in the field to look at aggression between males, which ultimately leads to reproductive success," Moore said. "That can give us an idea of who is winning the fights; who's getting the ladies, who's fathering the children -- who is more successful, generally."

So how did Acevedo help her to create a plausible version of a male tutuara?

Acevedo first took a cast from the venerable corpse of Oliver, a captive tuatara that recently passed away at Victoria University in Wellington. "After defrosting him, I packed his body with cotton wool, then added in spheres for his eyes and pins to hold up his spines," Acevedo said. With advice from Moore, he set Oliver's body into a lifelike pose before pouring silicone over him to create a perfect negative mold. From this Acevedo made a polyurethane cast out of the mold. Weta then installed electrical servos, tiny devices for controlling motion that allow Moore to choreograph Robo-Ollie's territorial posturing.

Building a robotic device is fine, but will the female reptiles think he's a real lizard? Will they fall in love? Will they chase him (it)?

For more information, you should read about Ollie the Tuatara at Weta Workshop, or visit Tuatara Online at Victoria University of Wellington.

Sources: Dave Hansford, for National Geographic News, June 6, 2007; and various websites

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