The Loh Down On Science

New insight into how Antarctic penguins huddle against the cold

Can penguins do the wave?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science 

Saying sure!  In their own way.

Antarctica's Emperor penguins huddle as protection against the cold. And penguins in huddles shift around, causing waves of motion.  Is there some rule that explains this movement?

Physicists in Germany examined a mathematical model of densely packed objects. Bird flocks, schools of fish, even traffic jams. The model assumes all the objects are equal.  Each moves independently, but each knows where its neighbors are.

They compared the model to videos of emperor penguin huddles. 

And?  Huddle movement matched the model!  Previous theories suggested that outer penguins, exposed to the elements, push inward, causing shuffling. But that's not what happens.

Turns out, any penguin finding itself an inch away from neighbors closes that space.  Then their neighbors close their space, and so on.  Voila!—a wave.

Why an inch?  It’s slightly more than the thickness of the penguins’ outer insulation feathers.  So it’s likely the ideal distance to share warmth, without smushing anyone’s insulation.

Or crushing the cummerbunds on their tuxedos.  Right!

***This video explains the research***

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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