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Researchers Place Penguins On Treadmill To Study Their Waddle

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For body language experts, analyzing how a person walks can reveal a number of things including his or her emotions, mood and even personality.

Now, a team of scientists in the United Kingdom is using the same concept to examine how penguins in Antarctica waddle to find out the animals' chances for survival.

In a study featured in the journal PLOS ONE, Astrid Willener and her colleagues at the University of London placed a group of King penguins on a treadmill to determine whether the weight of these flightless birds factor in on how they are able to walk.

The team believes that the waddling style of the animals plays a crucial role in their ability to survive in the harsh environment in the Antarctic.

Importance Of Gaining Weight For King Penguins

For the study, Willener and her team chose 10 male King penguins with each one weighing in at about 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds). They were all captured at the shoreline near the outskirts of their colony.

Compared to other animals, King penguins are known for the large part to be serial monogamists, choosing to stay with a single mate while they raise their offspring.

They also have the longest cycle for breeding of all known species of penguin, which typically lasts from 14 months to 16 months. However, they are only able to produce one chick for every breeding cycle.

King penguins need to gain weight during courtship to have enough stored fat in their bodies to help them last the fasting that comes with taking care of their eggs.

Adding fat, however, makes the animals less stable and more likely to be spotted by their predators and eaten. This makes it very interesting to find out the biomechanics involved in the penguins' waddling despite the extra weight, Willener said.

Willener and her team observed the male king penguins for 14 days and subjected them to fasting throughout the duration of the study. They also tested the ability of the animals to walk on a small treadmill at a speed of 1.4 kilometers per hour (0.87 miles per hour) before and after they lost weight.

While King penguins are used to going on fasting for up to a month, they were still monitored closely by the researchers to make sure that they did not lose body mass too quickly. The animals were also kept in a pen close to their colony.

Waddling

The researchers conducted two 10-minute training sessions for the penguins to allow the animals to get accustomed to using the treadmill. They also observed the birds' posture while walking, which involves their leaning and waddling. To determine the waddling of the penguins, the team measured just how much the birds lean from left to right while they walk.

Willener and her colleagues discovered that despite being able to waddle with more agility at lighter weights, the King penguins were able to adapt to the added weight and carried themselves well. They were little less stable and less efficient during their waddle at heavier weights.

However, Willener pointed out that even though fat penguins are still able to walk relatively well, the extra weight could make it more difficult for them to swim fast in the water.

She said that putting on more weight may be an adaptive mechanism for the penguins to survive the fast involved in their breeding cycle, but it also serves as a considerable trade-off for the animals.

It is crucial for the King penguins to be able to handle their added weight well and not fall while they waddle. Otherwise, they will be more likely to be noticed by their predators and eaten alive.

The researchers hope that their findings will be able to provide better understanding of the King penguins and help in developing conservation plans for them.

Photo: Liam Quinn | Flickr 

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