Researchers find emperor penguins outer feathers colder than surrounding air

Mar 07, 2013 by Bob Yirka report
Emperor penguin body surfaces cool below air temperature
Thermal image of penguin. Credit: Université de Strasbourg and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Strasbourg, France

( —A research team made up of members from France and the U.K. has discovered that when in cold temperatures, the outer feathers of the emperor penguin are actually colder than the surrounding air. As the team describes in their paper published in the journal Biology Letters, they discovered the unusual thermal properties of the penguin's feathers while studying the birds in their natural environment using infrared imaging.

To gain a better understanding of how emperor are able to withstand extremely low temperatures for months at a time, the research team ventured down to Terre Adélie, Antarctica, during June 2008. There they took hundreds of infrared of penguins that had moved slightly apart from the others—that allowed for full body images to be taken and minimized the collective warming that occurs as the animals huddle together.

Upon examining the multicolored images, the researchers were surprised to discover that the outer feathers that cover most of the penguins' body, were actually four to six degrees Celsius colder than the surrounding air. With most other birds, and animals, the air around their bodies is warmer. The researchers explain that the apparent anomaly appears to be due to what they describe as "extreme radiative cooling." It's similar to frost building up on surfaces on a cold morning. It happens with the penguins when their protective coat radiates more heat into the colder sky than is absorbed from the surrounding air—this causes the temperature at the surface of their feathers to fall below that of the surrounding air. The end result, the researchers report, is that the penguins are able to draw very tiny amounts of heat back to their feathers from the surrounding air, helping them to conserve energy. It's not much, the researchers conclude, but when trying to survive in a very for very long periods of time, every little bit helps.

In looking at the thermal images, the researchers also noted that the birds do have a few "hot" spots—eyes, beak and feet, where heat escapes. The eyes in particular, bright red in the photos, suggest that penguins must take care to protect such vulnerable areas from bitter wind. They note that earlier studies have found that the more at-risk areas of the penguins' body have special blood vessels that help to conserve heat.

Explore further: In hot and cold water: The private lives of 'Hoff' crabs revealed

More information: Emperor penguin body surfaces cool below air temperature, Published online Biology Letters, March 6, 2013. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.1192

Emperor penguins Aptenodytes forsteri are able to survive the harsh Antarctic climate because of specialized anatomical, physiological and behavioural adaptations for minimizing heat loss. Heat transfer theory predicts that metabolic heat loss in this species will mostly depend on radiative and convective cooling. To examine this, thermal imaging of emperor penguins was undertaken at the breeding colony of Pointe Géologie in Terre Adélie (66°40′ S 140° 01′ E), Antarctica in June 2008. During clear sky conditions, most outer surfaces of the body were colder than surrounding sub-zero air owing to radiative cooling. In these conditions, the feather surface will paradoxically gain heat by convection from surrounding air. However, owing to the low thermal conductivity of plumage any heat transfer to the skin surface will be negligible. Future thermal imaging studies are likely to yield further insights into the adaptations of this species to the Antarctic climate.

Press release

Related Stories

Keeping warm: Coordinated movements in a penguin huddle

Jun 01, 2011

To survive temperatures below -50 C and gale-force winds above 180 km/h during the Antarctic winter, Emperor penguins form tightly packed huddles and, as has recently been discovered – the penguins actually ...

Spotted: Rare spotted penguin

Jan 31, 2013

(—Little penguins, also known as fairy penguins, usually have a white belly and dark blue back to camouflage them from predatory eagles above and their fish prey below.

Recommended for you

Few friends for shy kangaroos

19 minutes ago

Kangaroo social networks could provide insight into the evolution of human personality differences.

Tracking bald eagles in coastal North Carolina

1 hour ago

Few animals capture the public imagination like the bald eagle. But despite their status as a national emblem, we still have a lot to learn about their behavior in the wild. Now NC State researchers are part ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.7 / 5 (7) Mar 07, 2013
The temperature determined by thermal imaging is affected by the emissivity of the object it is looking at. If you don't know the emissivity, you don't know the temperature.
I would seriously doubt that the feathers are at a lower temperature than the air.
1 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2013
Maybe they just came out of the water?
not rated yet Mar 07, 2013
I'd be curious to know if their mechanisms responsible for cooling are the same over a wide range of temperatures, ie; also above freezing.
1 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2013
I would also vote for measurement anomaly that they failed to address. They probably need to calibrate their IR measurements in a lab using (dead) penguin plumage embedded with temperature probes.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.