Living in the Antarctic can be extremely chilly, so Emperor penguins perform a mass dance to stay warm in such a harsh climate. Recently researchers have discovered that when the penguins make even the smallest movements together they create a unique behavioral warming structure. The penguins huddle together instinctively, although not too close to compromise their compact, water proof feathers.
These unique, flightless birds huddle together to keep not only themselves warm during the coldest temperatures, but also their eggs and young. If one lead Emperor penguin makes the slightest movement in any direction, the whole mass ensues in a wave of black and white feathered bodies in order to keep the bubble of warmth intact.
A physicist named Daniel Zitterbart, at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, studied the Emperor Penguin flocks. He found that they started to huddle closer together when temperatures start dropped below zero. The birds use each others body heat and mass to avoid the wind and chilling temps. When temperatures get down as low as – 60 degrees, scientists have noted that the birds may not even move up to nine hours at a time.
When the Emperor penguins were closely watched over a period of time, researchers noticed that they also moved in a lattice-like triangular pattern. There seems to always be one penguin at each point of the triangle as well. Researchers noted that this behavior is obviously an instinctual action in order to survive in such harsh climates.
Zitterbart mentioned in the publication, New Journal of Physics, that with even the slightest movement from one Emperor penguin actually creates a ripple effect with all of the other birds in the flock. He explains that it is like a traffic jam, only that it takes just one Emperor penguin any were within the flock to start the effect. The penguins also move around to find larger groups of birds, because more birds means more body warmth and protection from the harsh Antarctic winds. The flock can actually increase steadily from 100 to 1,000 in a matter of time when needed.
The Emperor penguins will actually move together to find fresh water when needed. Scientists also noted that if one wave of birds meets another wave of birds they do not pass each other, they actually merge together as one wave of Emperor penguins. Scientists do not clearly know exactly what drives the birds to make a step in any direction, but one theory may explain the movement due to a need to rotate the eggs while the penguins incubate them on their feet. The researchers are currently testing this theory to see if it holds true in any way.
Past research has also indicated that individual Emperor penguins will actually make tiny movements every 30 to 60 seconds and may move about 2 to 4-inches at a time. Although, little is still understood as to why the physics of such flock movements work together as a group.
All of the past and current research studies have included the use of time-lapse cameras in order to capture such minor movements. In real-time, the movements seem to be very steady, until you take a look at the footage from the time-lapse cameras. Researchers continue to try and find more clues to the physics of these Emperor penguins as they perform their mass dance to stay warm on the freezing ice they live on.
By Tina Elliott