for National Geographic News
On Stephens Island in New Zealand's storm-wracked Cook Strait, the tuatara—one of the most ancient reptile species on Earth—is getting a hand from distinctly 21st-century science (see a New Zealand map).
Researchers have placed in the wild a very special male that, like its wild cousins, can put on physical displays to establish its dominance.
But this reptile's skin is made of rubber, not scales, and its "heart" is a nickel-cadmium battery.
The alpha male in question is "Robo-Ollie," a robotic tuatara created to help researchers understand the behavior of these rare reptiles, the last species in a family that dates back 200 million years.
Specifically, postdoctoral student Jennifer Moore wants to know how male tuatara establish dominance—how they attract and keep females.
Understanding critical behaviors could help tuatara translocation and captive-breeding programs, perhaps by guiding conservation managers to the genetically fittest, most productive males.
(Related news: "Warming May Drive Gender-Bending Reptiles Extinct, Scientists Say" [November 10, 2006].)
"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."
To Bob or Not to Bob
To create a controllable tuatara, Moore enlisted aid from Weta Workshops, the Wellington-based animatronics company that fashioned monsters for such films as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Weta's senior prosthetics supervisor, Gino Acevedo, first took a cast from the venerable corpse of Oliver, a captive tuatara that recently passed away at Victoria University in Wellington.
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