​Why do penguins waddle?

LONDON -- Maybe it's because they look like refugees from a formal dinner party. Maybe because they're birds that swim like fish and walk like people. Maybe it's because -- let's face it -- they don't so much walk as waddle. Whatever it is, penguins draw a crowd.

"They're dapper little birds," said James Proffitt with the University of Texas. "People find them irresistibly charming."

penguins-intv-hrem12frame14933.jpg
James Proffitt
CBS News

And for Proffitt, they're irresistibly interesting. So he has come to join the kids at the London Zoo to try to answer the question: why do penguins waddle? After all it, Proffit says, it costs a lot of energy to waddle.

It's become one of the great scientific dilemmas of our time. Now, finally, American ingenuity is being brought in to figure out the wonder of the waddle.

Proffitt and a team from the Royal Veterinary College designed a pad, full of sensors, to measure the force the birds apply as they waddle along on those silly little legs.

As Ricky the rockhopper showed, the first trick was to actually get these petulant penguins to walk the plank. And what the team found was that the walk wasn't so silly after all.

"What they found out actually is that when it comes to waddling they're probably saving a bit of energy too because they are using this kind of lateral motion to do this weird sort of (waddle) to help them with the fact that they have short legs."

penguins-material-2-sub-01frame2091.jpg
Penguins at the London Zoo walks across a mat of sensors to help scientists study their gait
CBS News

Proffitt says he's not sure anyone knows how penguins can move without waddling.

"I think pantomime is kind of, you know, part of the whole part and parcel," he said.

It's yet another reason for people to identify with those clever little birds that dress so well.

"I think people would maybe like to believe that they all can wear tuxedos and look good," said Proffitt. "And penguins pull it off very well."

Even with that funny walk.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.