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Friday, 2 February, 2001, 11:34 GMT
Penguins wobble but they don't fall down
The myth that penguins topple over when they watch aircraft flying overhead has finally been laid to rest.
British researchers sent to the Antarctic to investigate the impact of military flights on local bird populations say the animals may wobble a bit but they remain upright.
For five weeks, a team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) monitored 1,000 king penguins on the island of South Georgia as Lynx helicopters passed overhead.
"Not one king penguin fell over when the helicopters came over," said team leader Dr Richard Stone.
"As the aircraft approached, the birds went quiet and stopped calling to each other, and adolescent birds that were not associated with nests began walking away from the noise. Pure animal instinct, really."
'Minor and transitory'
The conclusion, said Dr Stone, is that flights over 305 metres (1,000 feet) caused "only minor and transitory ecological effects" on king penguins.
The research was prompted by fears that the penguins' breeding patterns might be disrupted by aircraft activity in the region.
The myth of the toppling penguins has been circulating ever since pilots returned from the 1982 Falklands War. Some servicemen claimed the birds would topple backwards while gawping at aircraft.
The BAS team videoed penguins as helicopters flew over at different altitudes. Two colonies of birds were filmed before, during and after the flights. The recordings were analysed back at the survey's Cambridge headquarters.
A second set of experiments using fixed wing aircraft is now planned.