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Emperor penguins have an unlikely robot ally as they face threats at the edge of the world

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

We all need room to roam.

It’s instinctual to crave the freedom of having our own space to thrive.

The same is true for animals, which are critical to the survival of delicate, diverse ecosystems around the world. But we’re not doing so well on that score.

One-fifth of all reptile species face the risk of extinction, with crocodiles and turtles most threatened, according to a groundbreaking new study.

And the future of near-threatened animals like jaguars is uncertain for a similar reason: human-driven habitat loss.

Scientists, however, need to be closer to these creatures to understand how we can help them. Fortunately, we have technology on our side — and robotic proxies may be able to go where humans can’t tread, all in the name of science and saving species.

Mission critical

A bright yellow robot stands out among a sea of 20,000 emperor penguins living in a colony in Atka Bay in Antarctica.

But the penguins don’t really notice the robot as it rolls along the ice with them. Named ECHO, it’s part of a larger program to monitor the health of the penguins and their fragile ecosystem, both at risk due to global warming caused by the climate crisis.

Emperor penguins reign supreme on land, where they have no predators, but their survival depends on the presence of sea ice, where they raise their chicks. If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, 98% of the penguin population could virtually disappear by 2100 as warming temperatures melt the ice, according to a recent study.

By using a penguin-approved robot to conduct long-term monitoring, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution hope to lessen the human footprint in an already vulnerable place.

Other worlds

We’ve never seen anything like this on Mars.

The Ingenuity helicopter has captured new images that show what became of the Perseverance rover’s landing gear and parachute after it touched down on February 18, 2021.

The little chopper has a unique bird’s-eye perspective of the debris field. In the eerie images, which resemble a vista from “Mad Max,” the stripes of the parachute can be seen beneath a layer of red Martian dust.

Engineers are studying what happened to the protective backshell and parachute as they work on the ambitious multimission effort to return samples from Mars to Earth by the 2030s.

A long time ago

This is the last thing you’d expect to find while farming.

A Palestinian farmer uncovered the head of a 4,500-year-old statue of the goddess Anat while working on his land in Gaza.

Anat is the goddess of love, beauty and war, according to the pagan mythology of the Canaanites, an ancient people who lived in Jerusalem and surrounding area. The sculpture is “a symbol for the oldest human civilization that lived in Gaza City,” said Jamal Abu Rida, director general of antiquities at Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The statue will go on display at the Pasha’s Palace Museum in Gaza.

Once upon a planet

The Swiss Alps are lauded by tourists who love to take scenic trips, go hiking and watch winter sports.

The towering peaks are also apparently home to fossils of giant extinct marine reptiles the size of whales that roamed the ocean 250 million years ago.

Paleontologists found the fossils of three ichthyosaurs, or “fish lizards,” at an altitude of 9,186 feet (2,800 meters) in the scenic mountains. The remains ended up there after tectonic plates collided and formed rocky folds that pushed the ancient seafloor high up within the Alps.

One specimen included the largest ichthyosaur tooth ever found — and this whale of a tooth is revealing some of the mysteries of these long-gone sea creatures.

Fantastic creatures

Adorably fluffy Patagonian sheepdogs are kind of a national dog in parts of South America, helping to herd sheep between the Chilean coast and the Patagonian mountains. And you’ve probably never heard of them.

They’re also the closest living relative to a now extinct dog breed from England and Scotland, according to new research.

That’s too far to dog paddle, so how did they end up half a world away? In the 19th century, South American officials saw sheep farming as a promising industry, so they looked to the United Kingdom and its successful practices.

The farmers came — and they brought their dogs with them. Now, thanks to the isolation these sheepdogs have experienced, they act like a “missing link” scientists can use to understand canine evolution.

Take note

These may catch you by surprise:

— Astronomers have discovered 30 exocomets in a nearby planetary system — an already intriguing place where they can watch planets being born.

— One species of tiny social spider lives in groups. But once these spiders mate, the male has a special move to avoid being eaten by its female partner.

— The James Webb Space Telescope mirrors have completely aligned and are ready to capture crisp images of the universe.

Like what you’ve read? Oh, but there’s more. Sign up here to receive in your inbox the next edition of Wonder Theory, brought to you by CNN Space and Science writer Ashley Strickland, who finds wonder in planets beyond our solar system and discoveries from the ancient world.

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