Monday, June 29, 2015

Loony Locomotion (A Guest Post)

By Emma Doden

For those of us who have worn fins while snorkeling or swimming before, we know how much faster you are able to cut through the water with them on your feet. But as soon as you try to walk on land with those big flippers on, that grace and speed turns into awkward and ungainly steps. You have to concentrate very hard on not falling flat on your face and find yourself thinking that your own two small feet are much more convenient for walking on land than the flippers.

The common loon in flight. Notice how far back on the body its feet are placed!
Photo by Ano Lobb from Wikimedia Commons.
The common loon is a familiar flipper-footed bird for those of us residing in the Northern Midwest. Found on many lakes in the North Woods from late March to September, their black and white plumage, ruby red eyes, and haunting calls make them unforgettable. However, just like any other waterbird, as soon as they come onto land, all of their beauty and poise vanish. Loons do not have the luxury of removing their flippers when they come onto land. Instead they flip and flop clumsily on their bellies, probably feeling just as frustrated as any person frog-stepping with flippers on.

So why do loons have so much trouble walking on land?

Because most of their lives are spent in water, the common loon’s legs and feet are located extremely far back on their bodies, allowing them to swim and dive more efficiently. Loons don’t use their wings to aid in propulsion while underwater, so they need all the power they can get from their legs and feet to catch tasty fish.

The placement of their legs means that they must slide on their belly while on land. Their legs can’t support the weight of their body and so they instead use them to push off of the ground and slide forward. The only time you will find a loon on land is for mating or nesting. Common loons will build their nests on the shore, usually no more than 5 meters from the water, because it takes a lot of effort to belly flop even that short distance!

Watch the video below to see how comical a loon looks when stranded on land:

Though loons are strong fliers as well as divers, coming in for a landing can also be challenging. Their legs are too far back to thrust forward and use as landing gear, so they stick them straight back and make a splash-landing on their bellies, penguin style!

But what makes their legs and flippers so good for swimming and diving?

Common loons propel themselves through the water with sideways strokes of their legs and feet, similar to oars on a boat. Diving birds have leg bones with a long spike-like extension at the knee where very strong muscles connect. This part of their leg acts like a lever when a loon paddles, allowing the leg and foot to be powerfully propelled through the water. Each foot is fairly large with webbing between each toe. When a loon paddles through the water, the webbing fans out and the foot rotates slightly in relation to the body on the downstroke, allowing the maximum surface area to push off of the water. On the upstroke the toes will compress together and the webbing will bunch up so that there is minimal resistance cutting through the water. The motion of the foot splaying out and compressing in with each stroke creates an efficient mode of transportation for the water-loving loon. With legs and feet like these, they are able zoom through the water as fast as fish and dive up to 200 feet!

Loons rarely come onto land, and so it is not often that you will find one of these majestic creatures floundering through the mud of a lakeshore. You are much more likely to see them gliding effortlessly across a lake, until they disappear below the surface. Then you can imagine them easily hunting fish using their powerful legs and feet to propel them while diving. Even more so than wearing flippers to help you swim, just think how much faster you could be in the water with the streamlined body and strong legs and feet of a common loon!

To learn more about common loons and their flipper-foot conundrums visit these websites:

Piper, Walter. The Loon Project.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2011. Common Loon, Life History. All About Birds.

Evers, David C., James D. Paruk, Judith W. Mcintyre and Jack F. Barr. 2010. Common Loon (Gavia immer), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; The Birds of North America Online.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 2014. Common loon (Gavia immer).

Shearwater Seabird Osteology. 2013. Divers/loons: Osteology.

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