|NOTE: Photos and
video available at http://www.uh.edu/admin/media/nr/2005/12dec/121205penguinvideo.html
PENGUINS WADDLE BUT THEY DON'T FALL DOWN,
UH RESEARCHERS SAY
Study of Cuddly Creatures Focuses on Walking Stability
with Applications for Elderly, Robots
HOUSTON, Jan. 12, 2006 – With their feathery tuxedoes and
charming Chilly Willy-waddle, penguins are the quintessence of cute.
Small wonder they’re featured in Coke commercials, movies
like “Madagascar” and “March of the Penguins”
and children’s toys galore.
But one University of Houston professor is looking into a serious
side of these ultra-cute creatures.
Dozens of teeter-tottering penguins are the subjects of a research
project investigating balance and locomotion.
“Compared to other terrestrial animals, penguins have an excessive
amount of side-to-side, waddling motion,” Max Kurz, UH Health
and Human Performance professor said. “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
Kurz 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. The
research findings could even allow the development of more mobile
His study on walking stability features dozens of King penguins
from Moody Gardens in Galveston. Though these endearing animals
may seem unsuited for rough terrain, penguins will travel more than
75 miles across rugged ground terrain to reach their nesting sites.
Kurz believes the penguins have 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, have not developed such a mechanism to adjust
for such dramatic side-to-side motion. So, if we simply waddle,
chances are we’ll fall, but some aspects of a penguin’s
wobble could be very beneficial.
“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 for this research involves the construction
of sophisticated robots. Kurz said it is very expensive to construct
a robot that can successfully adjust to side to side, or medial-lateral,
motion. Robots currently in use, such as the Asimo robot that mimics
human walking patterns, have large, expensive and cumbersome computers
built onto their “bodies” 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.
“There is not much research on this issue, so we’re
hopeful about the results,” Kurz said.
To facilitate his study, Kurz has created a special platform that
contains a pressure mat. As penguins walk across the mat, it measures
the variability in the width and length of their steps. The data
will provide insight into the natural mechanics and stability of
the penguins’ walking patterns.
Kurz is collaborating with biologists at Moody Gardens, a public,
nonprofit educational destination utilizing nature in the advancement
of rehabilitation, conservation, recreation and research.
“This study provides a unique opportunity to have direct
access to an aspect of the natural world that would otherwise be
inaccessible,” Greg Whittaker, Moody Gardens animal husbandry
manager, 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 were chosen because of their hefty size. Smaller
birds, such as the rock hopper penguins, were too lightweight to
register data on the mat. King penguins, second in size only to
the larger Emperor penguins, are three feet tall on average and
can tip the scales at up to 35 pounds. And they were also very eager
“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 be rooted in 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.
As comical as his subjects may be, Kurz remains a scientist first
and an amused spectator second.
“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.”
For more information on UH Health and Human Performance, visit
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