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Scientists Put Penguins on a Treadmill to Learn About Their Waddle

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Though they're graceful in the sea, penguins aren't exactly known for being deft on land. To learn more about how their awkward gait impacts their chances for survival, a team of scientists had penguins waddle on a treadmill, The Guardian reports.

The study, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that fatter king penguins were more unstable than their thinner peers, making them more likely to fall over when evading predators. The heftier birds do have an advantage when it comes to breeding, as they're more likely to survive a long fast when caring for their eggs.

To gather their data, the research team led by Astrid Willener of the University of London traveled to Antarctica and captured 10 male king penguins who were in courtship mode. It's during this period that male penguins are at their heaviest, as they'll need the extra fat reserves when waiting for their eggs to hatch. To observe their waddle, the scientists placed the subjects on treadmills moving at just under .9 miles per hour both before and after two weeks of fasting. While the gait of the penguins remained pretty much the same across all weight levels, they were shown to be more stable on the treadmill following a diet. You can check out a sped-up clip of the footage in the video below.

They aren't currently under threat, but king penguins are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A 2007 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PDF] looked at a king penguin colony over the course of nine years, and found that the birds did not breed as successfully in the years when sea temperatures were the highest. Willener and her team hope that their new findings can be used to better understand the penguins and protect them in the future.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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