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How a High-Tech Egg Could Help the Endangered California Condor

Scientists are working to improve the breeding success of the condor. Their secret assistant: a plastic, 3-D printed, sensor-laden “smart egg.”

For weeks, the dummy egg tracked the nest temperature, logged the birds’ egg-turning behaviors and recorded the ambient sound. The zoo hopes this data will allow it to better replicate natural conditions in the artificial incubators that are key to its condor breeding efforts.

The more closely the zoo can replicate natural conditions in the incubators, the more successful it will be. So Ms. Walker enlisted Scott Shaffer, an animal ecologist and bird researcher at San Jose State University, and Constance Woodman, a bird scientist and expert on conservation technology at Texas A&M University, who together have made data-logging smart eggs for many different bird species.

Here’s how they brought the condor eggs into being:

Dr. Woodman used a 3-D printer loaded with a plastic selected specifically to be safe for birds, which might spend months sitting on the eggs. “I really, really don’t want to mean well and poison a bird,” she said. Printing each shell took 13 hours.

To ensure that the egg was not prone to spinning or wobbling, Dr. Woodman gave it to Loretta, her litter-box-trained “house turkey,” she said. “If Loretta doesn’t like it, she won’t sit on it.”

The color of bird eggs varies by species, and Dr. Woodman and Dr. Shaffer always try to replicate it as closely as possible. To match the subtle, blue-green tint of condor eggs, Dr. Woodman dipped the shells into a pot of a nontoxic dye intended for children’s clothing.

Small data loggers tucked inside the shells can track the temperature and movement of the eggs. An audio recorder captures the sounds in the nest, which the zoo will play back to the eggs in the incubator. “Developing embryos can hear things through their shells,” Ms. Walker said. And she used electrical tape to cover the lights on the electronics, “otherwise it would have looked like a flashing Christmas egg.”

Some birds will reject eggs that are abnormally light. So Ms. Walker used a hot glue gun to attach rocks to the inside of the egg, bringing its weight to more than half a pound.

The first condor parents to receive a smart egg this year were a female known only as number 762 and her mate, Alishaw. “He’s not what you would call a traditionally fantastic dad,” Ms. Walker said. “He’ll incubate as long as he has to, but he’s not thrilled about it.” (762’s devotion to him, however, remains undimmed. “She’s kind of a ride-or-die with Alishaw,” Ms. Walker said.)

When both birds left the nest, zoo staff moved their real egg to an incubator and replaced it with the fake one. The condors did not seem to notice. (Their chick, which has since hatched, is back with its parents and doing well, Ms. Walker said.)

When the breeding season is over, Dr. Shaffer and Ms. Walker will analyze the data. The findings will inform future incubator settings and, the team hopes, help bring more California condor chicks safely into the world. “It’s just a really cool use of technology that will only get better,” Dr. Shaffer said.

Category: Science

Source: NYTimes Science

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