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Penguins waddle but they don't fall down, UH researchers say

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 of."

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 robots.

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
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Source:University of Houston


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