Lens of Time: Huddle Masters

Emperor penguins just may be the best huddlers on Earth—and scientists are finally revealing the secrets to their success.

How is it possible that an animal, any animal, can survive the dead of an Antarctic winter? No food, no shelter; just ice, cold, and wind for more than a hundred days straight. But that’s exactly what emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) do—not only surviving, but breeding in one of Earth’s most inhospitable environments.

To the casual observer, the birds appear to just stand around on the ice and endure their frigid world. A longer look, though, reveals that penguins often form tight groups, especially when temperatures plummet. This “penguin huddle” appears to be at the core of the birds’ ability to conserve body heat and survive outside temperatures that would kill most other creatures. But exactly how these huddles function and how they subtly change in shape over time to benefit all members of the group has remained a mystery.

To explore the secrets of the penguin huddle, physicist Daniel Zitterbart and his team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution set up an elaborate network of robotic time-lapse cameras at a remote Antarctic research station in Atka Bay. Although the researchers control their cameras from half a world away, they have been able to capture an intimate portrait of life inside the penguin colony. High-resolution time-lapse imagery and computer analyses enable them to see and measure movements of individuals in the group that would otherwise go unnoticed. These movements, while subtle, are highly coordinated and critical to the survival of both individuals and the colony as a whole. And importantly, Zitterbart’s team now thinks their observations can provide important information about the overall health of emperor penguin colonies—and allow scientists to better predict how this endangered species will respond to changes in temperature, sea ice, and other environmental factors related to climate change.

Atka Bay, Antarctica

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