Penguins Cannot Taste Fish, Says New Study

Penguins cannot taste fish, according to a new study, in spite of the fact that they feed on fish that thrive in their environments.
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Penguins hunting for fish in polar waters

We have been endowed with the ability to enjoy and find pleasure in quenching our basic need for food: while our bodies are adapted to consume food for survival purposes, we also have taste buds to enjoy the process. Imagine eating food without being able to taste it! It would definitely make of this world of a rather insipid experience. Sadly, this might be the fate of penguins. According to a new study, penguins cannot taste fish in spite of the fact that their diets are essentially composed of the latter.

The paper, published in the journal Current Biology, provides an exposé as to how all species of penguins cannot taste fish. Penguins lack three of the five main taste buds, resulting in their inability to taste any food that is bitter or sweet. They were also shown to be unable to identify the meat-like taste called umami. The researchers were led to such conclusions after having analysed the part of penguin genome coding for genes relating to the palette. It seems that penguins lost the faculty of detecting bitter, sweet and umami taste over the years.

What is surprising is that fish flourish in the waters of the Arctic, and one would have thought that they are thus able to taste the food.

Jianzhi ‘George’ Zhang, explained in a statement that penguins “eat fish, so you would guess that they need the umami receptor genes, but for some reason they don’t have them. These findings are surprising and puzzling, and we do not have a good explanation for them. But we have a few ideas.”

The researchers attempted to explain the phenomenon by referring to previous work that indicates how the specific protein needed for the relaying of bitter, sweet and umami flavour signals from the tongues to the brains, known as Trpm5, does not function well in cold temperatures. It is possible that the penguins cannot taste fish because this protein cannot work in cold environments.

Zhang said: “This gives us a hint, perhaps, that this loss of taste genes has something to do with the inability of this protein to work at lower temperatures.”

Furthermore, penguins are known to swallow the fish whole, which would imply that they do not require their tongues to capture the taste.

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A penguin swallowing fish whole

Zhang commented on the above: “Their behavior of swallowing food whole, and their tongue structure and function, suggest that penguins need no taste perception, although it is unclear whether these traits are a cause or a consequence of their major taste loss.”

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