‘Fat’ king penguins put through their paces on treadmill

Fat king penguins are unsteady on their feet while waddling compared with their slimmer counterparts, but carrying a bit of extra weight has an important advantage when it comes to reproduction and biomechanics, researchers say.

A research team led by Astrid Willener from the University of London’s department of life sciences travelled to the subantarctic region of Antarctica to research the king penguin, which can grow up to 1m tall and weigh up to 16kg, making it the second-largest species of penguin behind the emperor.

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.

The penguins, which are serial monogamists, have the longest breeding cycle of all the penguin species – 14 to 16 months – and produce just one chick per cycle.

Weight gain is essential in courtship so that they have enough fat reserve to survive their fast while taking care of their eggs.

“However, being too fat makes them less stable and thus easily spotted and eaten by predators,” Willener said.

“So understanding the biomechanics of how penguins deal with walking with an additional quarter of their usual weight, while still being quite stable, is very interesting.”

The researchers kept the penguins for 14 days and fasted them during this time, and tested them for their ability to walk on a treadmill at a speed of 1.4km/h before and after their weight loss.

Fasting for periods of up to one month is normal for king penguins, and the researchers checked the critical body mass of the birds to be sure that they were not losing body mass too fast. They also kept the penguins in a pen next to their colony during the study.

Penguins ‘cheating’ the system
But there were difficulties in getting some of the penguins to co-operate, Willener said, with some of the larger individuals trying to cheat the system.

“A good [number] of the individuals were able to walk on a treadmill straight away,” she said. “Once the speed is set, the penguin usually can walk fluently.

“But an individual that is not able to walk straight away on a treadmill is difficult to train. 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 penguins received two training sessions of 10 minutes to get used to walking on the treadmill. The posture (leaning and waddling) of the penguins while walking was then determined by the researchers.

They found that, although the penguins waddled with more agility at a lower weight, they had nonetheless adapted well to be able to handle waddling while heavier, even if they were not as efficient and less stable.

But with swimming the primary method of travel for the birds, being agile in the water was more important that a quick and graceful gait, Willener said.

“The weight gain is an adaptive mechanism for them to survive their fast while reproducing and taking care of the egg,” she said.

“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.”

Willener hopes the findings will help in efforts to better understand and protect the species. Although king penguin numbers are not threatened, they have been in the past.

“The link between gait and energy expenditure can help to improve penguin protection,” she said.

“The energy expended during their walk, particularly when stressed and responding to predators, may affect their ability to fast and protect their chicks.” – © Guardian News & Media 2016

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