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Why Penguins Can't Taste Fish

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

By the way - back to that caviar - penguins might not be able to distinguish between caviar Hollywood-style or the real thing. Here's a scene from the 2005 documentary "March Of The Penguins," narrated by Morgan Freeman, showing emperor penguins diving for their dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARCH OF THE PENGUINS")

MORGAN FREEMAN: To feed on fish, krill and squid.

MONTAGNE: Well, NPR's food blog, The Salt, brought our attention to a scientific study that adds a new perspective to that scene.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

George Zhang studies evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. As it turns out, he says penguins can't taste sweet or bitter or umami, the savory flavor in fish.

GEORGE ZHANG: You would think that penguins need umami receptor genes to be able to taste fish.

MONTAGNE: Zhang says penguins' ability to taste umami disappeared about 20 million years ago. He guesses it's too cold where penguins live for their taste receptors to work well.

GREENE: His study is getting a whole lot of attention online.

ZHANG: I am surprised, you know? In addition to studying penguins, actually I do a lot of work in yeast. And nobody cares about my yeast work.

GREENE: Well, at least we've learned this much. Penguins might look great in tuxedos, but don't waste a fancy dinner on them. They are just not going to appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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