Penguins waddle like little fat men in dinner jackets – study aims to find out why

We don’t know why penguins waddle like little fat men in dinner parties, but we know everything else about them. Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin and the Royal Veterinary College in London are studying the penguins at London Zoo to find out why.

Most diving birds are amazingly agile in the water and rarely travel on land, preferring to use flight. However, the penguin, an aquatic, flightless bird that lives almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, especially in Antarctica, is an exception.

They either waddle on their feet or ‘toboggan’ (slide on their bellies across snow). If they want to move quickly or cross steep or rocky terrain they may jump with both feet together.

Penguins waddle

Why penguins walk the way they do is still a mystery.

Professor John Hutchison from the Royal Veterinary College said:

“The upright posture and waddling gait of penguins is not often seen in other birds. Most wing-propelled diving birds move using flight when they are not in the water.”

Prof. Hutchison, and paleobiology PhD student James Proffitt, from the University of Texas at Austin, are using a special motion detecting ‘catwalk’ to measure how penguins apply forces to their right and left legs as they waddle.

Mr. Proffitt said:

“We’re trying to understand the minute detail of how waddling works with living penguins, and then taking that back in time, looking at the fossil record of penguins to understand how evolving for such a specialised underwater lifestyle has affected their ability to move on land.”

Zuzanna Matyasova, the penguin keeper at London Zoo, said:

“We know our penguins really well, we know what they eat, we know how they behave on a day to day basis, and we know how to breed them for conservation purposes. But to know how they evolved to be like this is very important.”

Mr. Proffitt continued:

“Zoos provide an opportunity for research scientists to look at organisms that otherwise would be very difficult to study in the wild.”

Penguin Waddle Event

Penguin Waddle Event

(Image: London Zoo)

London Zoo invites members of the public to come to its Penguin Waddle event on April 18th, 2015.

The event aims to raise funds to further the Zoo’s work on penguins.

It is appealing to all children to come with their best penguin moves “find their best penguin costume and join us for a fun, sponsored, non-competitive morning waddle within ZSL London Zoo before the zoo opens for the day!”

London Zoo Video – Why do penguins waddle?