Academics often get a raw deal when people question public accounts of research that seems frivolous or obvious. Often it is not. That may be the case with the research of Professor Astrid Willener and the team from the University of London. The team studied fat and svelte penguins and discovered that fat King penguins are unsteady on their feet while waddling. Fat penguins were also found to be caught more easily. While the films of fat penguins on a treadmill were worth watching just for the novelty, some may be less surprised by the finding that fat penguins are easier to catch and less likely to find mates. The study does show that some realities cross species lines.
The life sciences team travelled to the subantarctic region of Antarctica to research the king penguin. They found that ten male king penguins who were in courtship and who weighed more than 12kg were captured near the shoreline at the edge of a colony. On the treadmill, the Rubenesque penguins did about as poorly as portly humans: “being too fat make them less stable and thus easily spotted and eaten by predators . . . So understanding the biomechanics of how penguins deal with walking with an additional quarter of their usual weight, while still being quiet stable, is very interesting.”
The team then put the portly penguins on a fast and worked them out on the treadmill. It turns out that some (like humans) did not cooperate and some “cheated”: “Sometimes the penguins were lazy and ‘water-skied’ on the treadmill by leaning their back on the back wall of the treadmill. That is obviously not good for the data collection.”
The team concluded that penguins waddled with more agility at a lower weight, but adapted well to be able to handle waddling while heavier, even if they were not as efficient and less stable.
Thus, weight gain is a useful adaptive mechanism for surviving long periods of fasting but “it is a trade-off between putting on weight to fast longer, in case there is a delay in finding a penguin partner to mate with, and still being able to walk, because if they can’t walk steady, they fall and will be spotted and eaten alive by predators. However, pedestrian locomotion is only their secondary locomotion mode.”
Most middle-aged endomorphic men might have been able to confirm those findings at a neighborhood pub. Weight gain certainly can interfere with finding a mate, makes you less stable, and easier to attack. Fortunately, humans have Photoshop to help with pictures on eHarmony during mating season.