BEHOLD ITS SPIKY TAIL FEATHERS. GAZE UPON ITS GALLANT NECK-SACS.
The Greater sage-grouse is the largest grouse in North America. It is a noble and stately bird:
Photo via U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Males of the species are renowned for congregating to perform the dramatic strutting display seen here. The ground on which they gather is called a "lek." Feathers fluff, heads jut, neck sacs swell and waggle and thump. Every spring it is the same: Males assemble on the lek to strut their stuff, and the females collect to check out the goods:
Loss of land in the western United States has driven Greater sage-grouse numbers to perilous lows, to the point that officials are considering granting the bird endangered status. Understanding the mating behaviors of the Greater sage-grouse is therefore of particular interest to conservationists, who might use this information to curb the animal's disappearance. To better understand how females of the species experience male strutting displays, Gail Patricelli – associate professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at UC Davis – has gone so far as to create a remote-controlled, camera-equipped, sage-grouse fembot. She (the fembot, not Dr. Patricelli) looks like this:
Photo Credit: Gail Patricelli via The Daily Sentinel
The fembot is built on a model tank chassis and is equipped with all-wheel drive. She can look back and forth, peck at the ground, and simulate "the 'interested' or 'uninterested' behaviors produced by real female sage-grouse." Here she is in action:
It's an amusing sight, to be sure, but Patricelli's fembot could provide us with key insights on how to better protect this fascinating species.
Read more about the Greater sage-grouse, and the imperiled sagebrush ecosystem where it makes its home, at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. See also this fantastic short by the folks at Science Friday: