Researchers find clue to explain how penguins know when to surface

Dec 09, 2011 by Bob Yirka report
Image: Wikipedia

(PhysOrg.com) -- Anyone who has ever swum around near the bottom of a swimming pool, or flippered along an ocean floor for any length of time without benefit of an air supply knows that there is a decision making process going on from the moment the dive begins: when to surface?

In people, the process clearly involves some calculating. The deeper a person dives, the more time must be allotted to reach the surface. A miscalculation can result in panic, or worse tragedy. But then, people aren’t exactly at home in the deep water; but are. So, how do they figure out when it’s time to surface? Surely they’re not thinking it over the whole time, that would take away from focusing on the reason for the dive. Finding and eating fish. That’s what Dr Kozue Shiomi and his colleagues from the University of Tokyo wanted to know, so they set about studying emperor penguins to find out. As it turns out, as they explain in their paper published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, it’s not so much about timing as it is about energy used in flapping their wings underwater to chase after prey.

Dr. Shiomi and his team studied the penguins in their two major diving environments: in open water, and when diving from and returning to a hole in the ice. In both cases, the birds were timed to see how long their foraging expeditions under the water lasted.

When fishing in open water, the ten free-rangers studied, over the course of 15,978 dives stayed under for an average of 5.7 minutes. When fishing from a hole in the ice however, the three birds under study dived 495 times but stayed under much longer, which led the researchers to believe that the penguins’ decision to end their time under water wasn’t about how long they’d been under at all. This led them to consider the possibility that it was based on energy expended instead, which is how they came to start counting how many times the penguins flapped their wings to propel themselves while chasing after fish.

Turns out regardless of whether the penguins are fishing in , or through a hole in the ice, they flap on average 237 times before surfacing. Thus, it seems rather clear that they are basing their time spent under water on energy spent flapping, rather than on some predetermined time span; though, how they count and keep track, is still anyone’s guess.

Explore further: Blowfly maggots provide physical evidence for forensic cases

More information: Point of no return in diving emperor penguins: is the timing of the decision to return limited by the number of strokes? J Exp Biol 215, 135-140. January 1, 2012. doi: 10.1242/​jeb.064568

Abstract
At some point in a dive, breath-hold divers must decide to return to the surface to breathe. The issue of when to end a dive has been discussed intensively in terms of foraging ecology and behavioral physiology, using dive duration as a temporal parameter. Inevitably, however, a time lag exists between the decision of animals to start returning to the surface and the end of the dive, especially in deep dives. In the present study, we examined the decision time in emperor penguins under two different conditions: during foraging trips at sea and during dives at an artificial isolated dive hole. It was found that there was an upper limit for the decision-to-return time irrespective of dive depth in birds diving at sea. However, in a large proportion of dives at the isolated dive hole, the decision-to-return time exceeded the upper limit at sea. This difference between the decision times in dives at sea versus the isolated dive hole was accounted for by a difference in stroke rate. The stroke rates were much lower in dives at the isolated hole and were inversely correlated with the upper limit of decision times in individual birds. Unlike the decision time to start returning, the cumulative number of strokes at the decision time fell within a similar range in the two experiments. This finding suggests that the number of strokes, but not elapsed time, constrained the decision of emperor penguins to return to the surface. While the decision to return and to end a dive may be determined by a variety of ecological, behavioral and physiological factors, the upper limit to that decision time may be related to cumulative muscle workload.

Related Stories

Simple technique results in surprising repellency results

Dec 02, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Anyone who has ever worn eyeglasses for any length of time can surely attest to the annoyance of constantly having to clean off the oil left behind by finger touching. Not only does it dirty the lens, but ...

Want to monitor climate change? P-p-p-pick up a penguin!

Apr 04, 2007

We are used to hearing about the effects of climate change in terms of unusual animal behaviour, such as altering patterns of fish and bird migration. However, scientists at the University of Birmingham are ...

Recommended for you

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

epsi00
not rated yet Dec 09, 2011
There you have it. Penguins can count, at least to 237.
rawa1
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2011
IMO they're just perceive well the level of oxygen in their lungs.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Dec 09, 2011
Makes sense, move more = use more oxygen, still though, the available workload of potential energy stored in a Penguin's muscle tissue is likely completely based on O2 storage and how saturated with O2 the tissue can get. I'd be curious if they have done comparative studies on penguins diving in less dense water ? Ice excludes salt when it forms, so isn't the water they are diving in denser than water New Zealand penguins, for example, would be diving in ?
moj85
1.5 / 5 (2) Dec 09, 2011
What kind of assumption is that answer? I can calculate how many times humans fart, on average, per day. But that doesn't mean all humans fart 15 times a day. What is the standard deviation? Do most penguins flap 237 /- 10 flaps, or is it 237 /- 100 flaps?
Myno
5 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2011
More likely they detect CO2, rather than O2.
tkjtkj
not rated yet Dec 10, 2011
Rawal:
yes, O2 level (via 'carotid bodies' perhaps, as in humans) or CO2 .. changes of either would be a more direct indicator of energy expenditure. Kinda tough to give a penguin an 'arterial line' for accurate measurement of changes in either!
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Dec 10, 2011
Computing or measuring is unreliable. If I would be a penguin, I'd use the half of air reserves in lungs or hollow bones for diving and the other half for surfacing, or some similar trick.
horve
not rated yet Dec 11, 2011
So if they learned to count to 500 they could stay under longer?