Poor Penguins Can’t Taste Much of the Delicious Sushi They Eat

By Noah Kaufman |

© sciencephotos / Alamy

Go ahead, admit it, your heart melts when you see penguins. You probably want to swim with them or dance with them (or, for some reason, surf with them), but it turns out one thing you don’t want to do is eat with them. At least, not if you value dinner companions with good taste. According to a new study published yesterday by researchers at the University of Michigan, penguins can’t taste anything sweet, bitter or umami-like. 

One of the study’s authors, George Zhang, believes that penguins lost their taste receptors because they live in such cold climates. Taste receptors don’t function well when you eat very cold food—that's why sommeliers don't recommend drinking super-chilled wine. And since the receptors weren’t all that useful in the penguins’ natural environment, eventually they just disappeared.

You may be wondering how the scientists figured all this out. They can’t exactly ask penguins how their fish tastes. Zhang and company used genetic testing and found that the penguins were missing all the genes required for tasting sweet, bitter and umami flavors. While they need to do more tests that involve actually feeding the penguins, Zhang is pretty sure that his findings will be confirmed. He told The Verge yesterday, “It’s very clear if the genes aren’t there, then the animals don’t have those tastes.”

The genetic testing did indicate that penguins could taste sour and salty things, so all that super-fresh raw fish probably tastes pretty one-dimensional. 

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