Emperor penguin groups' traveling waves maintain optimum insulation

Scientists have explained the synchronized wave pattern observed in groups of Emperor penguins huddled together for warmth by using the same mathematical model used to study traffic jams.

By Ananth Baliga

Emperor penguins are known to huddle together during the winters to retain body heat and keep warm. They are also known to move in waves and scientists have now used a mathematical model to explain this movement.

Using a mathematical model used to study traffic jams, flocks of birds and schools of fish, scientists have found that an individual penguin needs to move only 2 centimeters in any direction to set off a chain reaction.


The model is used to predict how autonomous individuals can incrementally move step-by-step within a tightly packed huddle, much like cars inching forward in a traffic jam.

But unlike traffic jams, the movement of the penguins could be initiated by a single penguin as soon as the gap between two penguins was greater than the "threshold distance" of 2 cms. This threshold distance was calculated to be twice the thickness of a penguin's compressive feather layer.

This suggests that the penguins touch each other only slightly, in order to maintain a fluffy feather layer, which provides insulation in the cold Antarctic weather.

"We were really surprised that a travelling wave can be triggered by any penguin in a huddle, rather than penguins on the outside trying to push in," said researcher Daniel Zitterbart. The findings are published in the New Journal of Physics.


Earlier research used time-lapse videos to ascertain that the massive groups did not stay still and moved every 30 to 60 seconds. But they found that all the penguins moved in a synchronized manner, much like a wave, never understanding how these movements were initiated.

[New Journal of Physics] [Science World Report]

Latest Headlines