Penguin huddle makes waves

Emperor penguins in a huddle
Emperor penguins in a huddle at Taylor Rookery, East Antarctica (Photo: Doug Braid).

3rd June 2011

Emperor penguins keep warm in the harsh Antarctic winter by huddling together. But how do penguins on the outside of the huddle, get to the inside, for their share of the warmth?

It’s a question that’s baffled scientists for years. But now, thanks to time-lapse imagery, scientists have found that the penguin huddle moves in a wave pattern every 30 to 60 seconds.

‘All the penguins in row one might take small steps to the right by 5 or 10 centimetres simultaneously, and then the penguins in the second row do the same, just afterwards,’ says seabird ecologist Dr Barbara Wienecke, of the Australian Antarctic Division.

‘Over time, these small movements lead to a large-scale reorganisation of the huddle.’

The research, which was published in the journal PLoS ONE this week, was led by PhD student Daniel Zitterbart of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, during a winter at Dronning Maud Land.

Zitterbart took time-lapse images every 1.3 seconds for four hours and then used software that he’d designed to follow the movements of penguins within the huddle.

He found that as temperatures dropped to -43°C the penguins aggregated in multiple huddles. These huddles remained motionless for most of the time and were tightly packed, with some 21 penguins per square metre. Every 30 to 60 seconds the huddle moved by small 5-10 cm steps in a coordinated manner – much like a Mexican wave – before tightly packing together again.

The paper’s authors say the small, regular steps achieve three things: they allow for the highest packing density, to ensure warmth; they ensure a forward motion of the entire huddle; and they lead to a slow reorganisation of the huddle, without disturbing the penguins in the centre of the huddle.

Time-lapse video of penguin huddle formation and the travelling waves can be viewed with the scientific paper on the PLoS ONE website.

Series of graphics showing the coordinated movements in an emperor penguin huddle.

Above: Coordinated movements in an emperor penguin huddle: (A) Observed field of view of the emperor penguin colony. The image shows several huddles and individual penguins. The density of penguins in huddles is approximately 21 animals per square meter. (B) The penguins' yellow and white face patch was used to track individual animals. (C) Typical trajectory of a penguin during huddle movements. Motionless periods are interrupted by intermittent small steps that lead over time to a reorganisation of the entire huddle. (D) Positions of penguins tracked over 4 hours show a collective huddle movement as indicated by red arrows. (E) Trajectories from neighbouring penguins with similar vertical (y) positions show correlated steps in the horizontal (x) direction. The speed of the propagating wave is indicated by the slope of the red line.

(Image credit: Daniel P. Zitterbart, Barbara Wienecke, James P. Butler, Ben Fabry. Coordinated Movements Prevent Jamming in an Emperor Penguin Huddle. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (6): e20260 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020260)