As It Happens

Fat penguins prone to wobbly waddle, so scientists put them on a treadmill to investigate

Astrid Willener is the lead researcher behind a new study that uses treadmills to record the bio-mechanics of king penguins.
(Astrid Willener)

Without a doubt, penguins are the best-dressed animals on the planet. But, despite the tuxedo, it's hard to take them serious with the clumsy way they waddle around the ice.

Unless you're Astrid Willener. She's the lead researcher behind a new study on the bio-mechanics of the Antarctica king penguin waddle. Willener found that the awkward-looking walk actually says a lot about the overall health of the species. And it's a conclusion she arrived at in the most unusual way.

"I picked them up and I just put them on a treadmill, so they had no choice," Willener tells As It Happens host Carol Off. "Actually, most of the penguins were able to walk straight away on the treadmill."

Astrid Willener is the lead researcher behind a new study that monitors the bio-mechanics of king penguins using treadmills. (Marguerite Netchaieff)

Willener conducted the experiment as part of her doctoral thesis at the University of Roehampton. Stationed on Possession Island, Willener and her team captured 10 overweight male king penguins and put them to work on the treadmill.

"I had to first train them and some of them found a trick to not walk because they were a bit lazy," Willener quips. "They lean back on the back wall of the treadmill, which obviously was not good for the data."

(Astrid Willener)

The crew filmed and monitored the penguins walk before and after putting them on a diet to note any changes due to body weight.

"My thesis was to link the geomechanics and the energy expenditure," Willener explains. "The way they cope to walk with different body mass."

Willener explains that the penguins need to bulk up to survive off fat deposits during their a lengthy reproduction cycle.

"It's a tradeoff of being fat so they can fast longer, but when they are too fat they may not be able to walk steadily and will fall over," Willener explains. "They will be obviously attacked and eaten by other predators."

(Astrid Willener)


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