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How Do Penguins Keep Warm

Lynnette Thomas

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An international team of scientists have revealed recently shot lapse footage, finally revealing the amazing secret of how penguins, warm blooded creatures, manage to survive and stay warm in below zero conditions. This is something that scientists have long wondered about.

Emperor penguins manage to survive the harsh Antarctic winter conditions by forming into firmly compacted clusters. These structures drastically change, as a harmonious wave intermittently rolls across the colony. The latest time lapse photography has demonstrated the birds’ movements in almost indiscernible waves.

As the female penguins flee out to sea, the males remain to watch over the eggs, in an area where the temperature frequently drops to -45C and winds can reach up to 180 km per hour.

A physicist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, Daniel Zitterbart, says “The penguins have to huddle or otherwise they lose energy. If the huddle is too loose, the penguins freeze. ”

Taking a photo every 1.3 seconds over a two hour period, the camera confirmed that the huddled mass was far from motionless.

"The colony would stay still for most of the time, but every 30-60 seconds one penguin or a group of penguins starts to move - just a little bit, making small steps” Dr Zitterbart explained.

This insignificant movement prodded the next door penguins to move, forming a spasmodic wave. Over time these small 5 – 10 centimetre steps lead to large scale reorganization of the huddled mass.

While this movement is almost indiscernible to the naked eye, it impacts the entire colony’s structure. Smaller huddles unite into larger ones, as some of the penguins waddle out of the pack and move to the back.

The penguins are compelled to change position over several hours, so the outer edge penguins are eventually moved to the centre of the huddle. In this method all the penguins share their warmth with no-one is left on the outer edge to freeze to death.

Individual penguins do not change their position in relation to their neighbour, neither do they force their way in or out of the group. They simply ‘go with the flow’.

Zitterbart says “Why these waves are uncoordinated, turbulent and dangerous in a human crowd, where the participants would be crushed, but not in a penguin huddle remains an open question”.


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