Vultures act as nature's garbage collectors, eating dead animal carcasses and helping to stop the spread of pathogens and disease. However, nearly 99 percent of some populations have died off in recent years, leaving many species critically endangered.
To save the vultures, conservationists are taking a closer look at their breeding habits, and an electronic egg is the newest tool to do so.
Microduino, a hardware company making more portable and affordable Arduino hardware, has created an electronic "EggDuino" to closely study the vulture's incubation period and collect data that can be used to replicate it.
The egg contains a small computer and sensors that collect information on the internal structure of the egg, heat, humidity, and movement like rotation habits. It is sturdy and nearly unbreakable and capable of operating independently for 70 days at a time as to not disturb the birds. Once conservationists know more about the exact conditions of the nest during incubation, they can take the vulture's egg and incubate it artificially, tricking the bird into laying a second or even third egg in one year and speeding up repopulation efforts.
Little is known about the incubation cycle of vulture eggs because the animal only lays one egg every year or two, and there is no commercial reason to breed them. Chicken eggs, on the other hand, can be hatched with about an 80 percent success rate or more in artificial incubation. The "EggDuino" could help close this gap. It will be deployed in the next month or two by the International Centre for Birds of Prey, which already has some vultures successfully sitting on their connected eggs in early tests.
Adam Bloch, a trustee at the International Centre for Birds of Prey, said the organization and Microduino worked to make the project open source and 3D-printable so as many groups as possible can also use the technology. He said there is no reason the technology can't be used with other birds, even those that are not yet endangered.
"The human species is incredibly responsive, we wait until there is a problem to do something about it," he said. "Why not get the data now? Why not create a database of all this information so we can do something in the future? We might learn something in the process."