Penguin huddling found to be more complicated than thought

December 9, 2015 by Bob Yirka report
Adults with chicks. Credit: Public Domain

(—A team of researchers from several institutions in France and one in Germany has found that emperor penguin huddles are more complicated than has been thought by many in the science community. In their paper published in the journal Animal Behaviour, the team describes their study of the penguins over three separate breeding seasons and what they learned by looking at video of penguin huddling.

Male emperor huddling to keep themselves and eggs laid by an absent mate warm, has been made famous by the documentary March of the Penguins—they stand, seemingly stoically against the onslaught of bitter cold and frigid wind. Their actions seemed all the more interesting when it was learned that they shift about, moving members from the outside edges towards the center to share the burden of keeping warm. Now it appears that such images may be only part of the story. In this new research effort, the researchers discovered that penguin huddles don't last very long because the penguins actually get too hot.

The team studied approximately 3000 emperor penguins living and huddling in Antarctica's Pointe Géologie Archipelago colony over the years 2005 and 2006 and then again in 2008. In studying the video recordings they made, they discovered that huddling typically only lasted on average from twelve minutes to a few hours, and the average length of time an individual penguin spent in a huddle was just 50 minutes. They also found that temperatures inside the huddle could get hot, sometimes reaching nearly 100°F under certain conditions. What's more, they discovered that it typically only took action by a single member to cause the huddle to disperse, and that the individual was generally one on the outside edges.

Backing up their theory that it was excessive heat that caused the huddles to disperse, the team found that soon after separating, a haze of warm air was released, and some of the penguins ate some snow, apparently attempting to cool off faster.

The team reports that they were surprised to discover that it was generally an outlier that instigated the breakup of huddles, but suggest that may have been because those in the center were trapped by the others around them.

Explore further: Keeping warm: Coordinated movements in a penguin huddle

More information: New insights into the huddling dynamics of emperor penguins, Animal Behaviour, Volume 110, December 2015, Pages 91–98. DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2015.09.019

Social thermoregulation is a cooperative strategy in which animals actively aggregate to benefit from the warmth of conspecifics in response to low ambient temperatures. Emperor penguins, Aptenodytes forsteri, use this behaviour to ensure their survival and reproduction during the Antarctic winter. An emperor penguin colony consists of a dynamic mosaic of compact zones, the so-called huddles, included in a looser network of individuals. To maximize energy savings, birds should adjust their huddling behaviour according to environmental conditions. Here, we examined the dynamics of emperor penguin aggregations, based on photo and video records, in relation to climatic factors. Environmental temperature, wind and solar radiation were the main factors contributing to huddle formation. The analysis of individual movements showed that birds originating from loose aggregations continually joined huddles. Sometimes, a small number of birds induced a movement that propagated to the entire huddle, causing its breakup within 2 min and releasing birds, which then integrated into looser aggregations. Different parts of the colony therefore appeared to continually exchange individuals in response to environmental conditions. A likely explanation is that individuals in need of warmth join huddles, whereas individuals seeking to dissipate heat break huddles apart. The regular growth and decay of huddles operates as pulses through which birds gain, conserve or lose heat. Originally proposed to account for reducing energy expenditure, the concept of social thermoregulation appears to cover a highly dynamic phenomenon that fulfils a genuine regulatory function in emperor penguins.

Related Stories

Keeping warm: Coordinated movements in a penguin huddle

June 1, 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 coordinate ...

New model reveals how huddling penguins share heat fairly

November 16, 2012

Penguins that face the bitter cold and icy winds of Antarctica often huddle together in large groups for warmth during storms. Mathematicians at the University of California, Merced created a model of penguin huddles that ...

Huddling rats behave as a 'super-organism'

September 3, 2015

Rodents huddle together when it is cold, they separate when it is warm, and at moderate temperatures they cycle between the warm center and the cold edges of the group. In a new study published in PLOS Computational Biology, ...

Recommended for you

Energy-saving LEDs boost light pollution worldwide

November 22, 2017

They were supposed to bring about an energy revolution—but the popularity of LED lights is driving an increase in light pollution worldwide, with dire consequences for human and animal health, researchers said Wednesday.

Re-cloning of first cloned dog deemed successful thus far

November 22, 2017

(—A team of researchers with Seoul National University, Michigan State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has re-cloned the first dog to be cloned. In their paper published in the journal ...

Testing the advantage of being left-handed in sports

November 22, 2017

(—Sports scientist Florian Loffing with the Institute of Sport Science, University of Oldenburg in Germany has conducted a study regarding the possibility of left-handed athletes having an advantage over their ...


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.