Penguins’ wide stride tapped for movement
Courtesy University of Houston
and World Science staff
With their feathery tuxedoes and charming waddle, penguins are the epitome of cute. Small wonder they’re featured in commercials, movies like “Madagascar” and “March of the Penguins,” and children’s toys.
But a professor at the University of Houston, Texas, is looking into penguins’ serious side, in a research project investigating balance and locomotion.
He says a better understanding of penguin walking could help improve
the walking abilities of both humans and robots.
Penguins have a lot of “side-to-side, waddling motion” compared to other land animals, said Max Kurz, the professor of health and human performance.
“If humans waddle too much they fall, but penguins somehow overcome this. They may have an elegant movement strategy for stability that we’re unaware of.”
Kurz said he hopes that learning about the penguin’s distinctive waddle will help those with walking challenges, such as the elderly, those with leg or foot injuries and toddlers learning to walk.
His research features dozens of King penguins, who in the wild often travel more than 75 miles on rugged ground to their nesting sites. Kurz believes they’ve learned to use the waddling motion in a way that makes their movements more efficient, adjusting for the limitations of the size of their legs and their weight. Humans, on the other hand, haven’t developed a mechanism to adjust for dramatic side-to-side motion.
So if we just waddle, we’ll probably fall, but some aspects of a penguin’s wobble could be very beneficial, he explained.
“We can envision a scenario where elderly may be able to put their walkers or canes down because they’ve learned to make the same adjustments in their walking patterns,” Kurz said. “This research may aid in developing a way to teach those people how to walk more efficiently despite their side-to-side motion, to learn the same kind of stability as the penguin.”
Another application of the research involves making sophisticated robots, Kurz said. It’s very costly to build a robot that can adjust to side to side, or “medial-lateral,” motion. Current robots, such as the “Asimo” that mimics human walking, have large, expensive computers built in to keep them from tipping over when they walk and run. His research can be used to build smaller computers for such robots that will become increasingly more life-like, he contended.
“There is not much research on this issue, so we’re hopeful about the results,” Kurz said.
Kurz has built a special platform that contains a pressure mat. As penguins walk across it, it measures the variability in the width and length of their steps. The data provides insight into the natural mechanics and stability of the penguins’ walking, said Kurz, who collaborates with biologists at Moody Gardens, a public, nonprofit educational destination in Galveston, Texas.
“This study provides a unique opportunity to have direct access to an aspect of the natural world that would otherwise be inaccessible,” Greg Whittaker of Moody Gardens said. “This research also may have real applications in addressing skeletal deformities that occasionally occur in captive penguins. By establishing the normal mechanics of penguin walking, we can better understand how to recognize and deal with abnormalities.”
King penguins, second in size among penguins only to the larger Emperor penguins, are three feet tall (slightly under 1 meter) on average. And they’re very eager to perform, Kurz said.
“It’s almost like playtime for them. We can’t hold them back,” Kurz said. “There is one in particular that always wants to cut in front of the other penguins, so that he can walk across the mat first. It’s pretty cute.”
Just why penguins (or pandas or kittens) seem so “cute” to humans isn’t as measurable as their gait, but some researchers speculate that this may stem from the animals’ perceived vulnerability, lack of threat and soft physiques.
For UH researcher Kurz, his subjects’ funny, cuddly nature is just an incidental advantage.
His current research will provide a springboard for future studies on the unique locomotive strategies of penguins. Next, he will examine the running patterns of the penguins. And if you think penguins are cute waddling, just wait till you see them in a hurry.
“You can’t help smiling,” Kurz said, “but this is serious research, and the results could make a real difference in many people’s lives.”
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