Last year, much to the delight of squeamish people everywhere, scientists were successfully able to remotely control the paths traveled by live cockroaches. They did so by wirelessly stimulating the insects’ antennae and cerci sensory organs. Now, a group of scientists from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have reported success in controlling the paths of walking turtles. Fortunately for the reptiles, the KAIST researchers’ methods were considerably less invasive than those used on the cockroaches.

Like most animals, turtles have an innate obstacle-avoidance behavior – if something blocks their path in one direction, they instinctively change their trajectory in order to avoid it. The scientists drew upon this factor in four untrained red-eared sliders (the turtles commonly sold in pet shops).

When it was time for its 10-minute testing session, each turtle had a wirelessly-controlled servo motor attached to the top of its shell. Attached to that motor was a sort of curved blinder – picture an opaque version of one of those cylindrical cake covers, cut in half. It can be seen in use in the video below.

The turtle would start by walking forward on the lab floor, with the blinder positioned over its rear end. If the scientists caused the blinder to pivot around on the turtle’s shell, so it blocked the animal’s vision from one side, the turtle would automatically turn in the opposite direction to avoid the perceived barrier. By tracking each turtle via an overhead camera and selectively swiveling the blinder to one side or the other, the researchers could get the animals to follow predetermined paths along the floor.

While causing turtles wearing half-cake-covers to walk in a certain direction might not have any direct practical applications, the project is intended to explore ways in which untrained animals can be controlled through non-invasive means, for possible use in surveillance, reconnaissance, exploration or even rescue missions. Ultimately, the plan is to develop miniaturized behavior-controlling devices that could be used in the real world on a variety of other animals.

Source: PLOS ONE (paper) via Discover