Science has done a lot to broaden our understanding of the universe. It’s taken us to the moon, smashed subatomic particles together, and estimated the sell-by date of the Earth – it’s in 3.5 billion years, if you want to set your alarm clock.
Of course, science isn’t always exciting space missions. In fact, a lot of the time it’s a hungover lab assistant, desperately trying to steady their pipette before their supervisor turns around and they get a ten-second window to hurl into a conical flask.
But just occasionally, once every few years, science becomes absolutely bizarre: when scientists put penguins on treadmills.
If you’ve ever witnessed footage of such a sight (you can here), you’ve known the unique feeling of watching what a Japanese gameshow would look like if Japan were solely occupied by penguins. The little sardine-eaters look as lost as a beginner at the gym; just stumbling over the never-ending track, blindly hoping that it will speed up to 200 miles an hour and fling them back to their cosy sofa.
The phenomena first caught mass attention back in 2016, when video of a fat penguin ambling along a treadmill was widely circulated online. While many might have viewers assumed that OK-Go had let themselves REALLY-Go, the footage was actually from a research group studying whether porkier penguins were less steady on their feet.
And most incredibly, this wasn’t the first experiment of its kind. There is a long precedent.
So what, for the sweet love of ice-cold mackerel, is the point? What exactly can forcing these bulbous birdies onto treadmills teach us? Well, a little bit about penguin biology, and a lot about the nature of science.
“They were remarkably well-behaved,” says Dr Richard Bevan. “They took to the treadmill quickly.”
Dr Bevan is a lecturer of zoology at Newcastle University. But prior to his position, he was part of a research team based at Bird Island, South Georgia, one of the closest land masses to Antarctica, a haven for bird studies, and probably the most southern gym on the planet.
“We sourced the gentoo penguin from the nearby colony, and they were carried back to the base where we had the treadmill set up in a lab,” he told Gizmodo UK. “They were kept for a few days and then released.”
With red beaks, white heads, and orange feet, gentoo penguins certainly bring a bit of colour to their drab, rocky Antarctic home. And as the third largest penguin species, they brought some serious cardio to the study, too.
“My biggest memory was being really tired,” says Bevan. “We had to record the penguins overnight to get 24-hour readings, but the base ran on generators. There was a rule that if the generators were on, someone had to stay up. So, if I was running these experiments it meant that I got no sleep. And some of them lasted 72 hours!”
Despite sounding like a penguin internment camp, the point of the experiment wasn’t to punish the birds for directly inspiring Happy Feet 2. Instead, Bevan and the other scientists were trying to measure the penguins’ energy expenditure, like personal trainers without the smugness.
“We needed to know the relationship between heartrate and oxygen consumption. So we walked the penguin on the treadmill at different speeds and recorded the two variables to get that relationship. We also swam them in in a swim channel. The derived relationship was then used to convert heart rates that we recorded from free-ranging animals into energy expenditure.”
The study was a success. Through their measurements, Bevan and the team demonstrated that the metabolic rates of the gentoo penguins vary during their breeding season - knowledge that could help scientists better understand how the birds interact with their environment.
“From the metabolism of the wild gentoo penguins we could estimate food consumption. This is a vital component in our understanding of the ecology of the creatures.”
While the research’s results were novel, their marathon-like methods were not. Studies involving penguins on treadmills actually go as far back to the 1970s. Since then, the literature has grown massively, and thanks to the age of online video, so has the attention it’s received.
Back in 2007, one study into the effects of over-fishing caught a big win when media outlets got hold of its penguin plodding footage. And awareness only increased again in 2016, when Antarctic researchers filmed a fat king penguin trying to shed some pounds in the name of science.
“Being too fat makes them less stable and thus easily spotted and eaten by predators,” Astrid Willener, a researcher from the University of London, told the Guardian.
“These results indicate that heavier king penguins have a higher frontal and sagittal instability; they are less stable walkers than when they are lighter.”
And it’s this kind of transparent insight that bring us back to the main question: why do scientists keep putting penguins on treadmills? Isn’t there more important research that could use the money?
They’re fair questions, and they actually get to the heart of one of the biggest debates in scientific funding. After all, humanity is facing down a barrage of terrifying threats right now. Rising sea levels, antibacterial resistance, and the total breakdown of agricultural pollination are all serious ultimatums that deserve round-the-clock research. So, why have scientists been wasting time creating penguin fitness regimes?
It’s the kind of question that’s always plagued science. Way back in 1905 – one of the golden ages when people didn’t know what a treadmill was – the French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Henri Poincaré published a book on the value of science: La valeur de la science. In his English preface, Poincaré argued that, “we cannot know all facts, since their number is practically infinite.”
“It is necessary to choose; then we may let this choice depend on the pure caprice of our curiosity; would it not be better to let ourselves be guided by utility, by our practical and above all by our moral needs; have we nothing better to do than counting the number of lady-bugs on our planet?”
Much how YouTubers are 2019’s Blue Peter presenters with a Boots beauty range, ‘let’s put penguins on treadmills’ is 2019’s ‘let’s count all the ladybirds’ with protein shakes. The metaphor may have changed, but Poincaré’s point on the science’s utility hasn’t. No matter how adorable they look, the little beaky joggers are never going to sweat out a cancer cure, so why bother drilling them?
But, of course, it isn’t that black and white. Well, in this case, it is, but that’s beside the point. Many still see science of any kind having value in and of itself. As Plato once said, true philosophers are “those who love to see the truth”. Granted, Plato never saw the truth of what goes into a cheap sausage or a chicken nugget, but the concept still stands firm for many.
No matter the cost, no matter the uselessness, no matter how many beak bites a researcher may suffer, there is still something to be learned from putting a penguin on a treadmill. And while that something may never plug up the whole in the ozone layer, it still has the power to inform and inspire the next generation of scientists that could.
In many ways, a penguin on a treadmill is a perfect symbol of ‘unnecessary scientific research’. It might waddle along with no clear aims of where it’s going or what it’s even there for, but, damn, if it doesn’t make you want to learn more about the natural world. Or, if you’re like me, check out if Club Penguin’s still a thing.
On second thoughts, we’re doomed.
Featured image: Unsplash/Gizmodo