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How Penguins Survive Cold Conditions

Science of the Cold

Facts: Antarctica Animals | Antarctic penguin fact file | Adélie penguins |
Chinstrap penguins | Emperor penguins | Gentoo penguins | King
penguins | Antarctic Animal Adaptations | Krill | How penguins survive the
cold | Animals and the cold | Weddell Seals | Antarctic Fur Seal | Southern
Elephant Seal | Other birds | Albatross | Snow Petrel | Whales
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Penguins are one of the archetypal animals of cold climates, they survive
in the coldest and harshest climates on earth where they can often be the
only animals there. How do they do this? especially as they are warm
blooded animals that cannot let their own body temperature fall.

Be Big
Warm blooded animals in cold climates are pretty large, even the smallest
Antarctic birds are on the large side and the smallest Antarctic penguin,
the Rockhopper is a fairly hefty 2.5kg (5.5lb). The Adelie and Emperor
penguins of the deep south are larger still. Adult weights are 5kg (11lb) for
the Adelie and 30kg (66lb) for the Emperor - a similar size to an
overweight 10 year old child, but with a man-sized chest measurement.

The larger the animal, the smaller the surface-area : volume ratio and so
the less relative area there is to lose heat.

Take a 1cm cube:

Volume = 1 x 1 x 1 = 1cm3
Surface area = 6 faces x (1 x 1) = 6cm2

So for 1cm3 of volume there are 6cm2 of surface area to lose heat from, 6
/ 1 = 6cm2 per 1cm3

surface-area : volume ratio is 6:1

Now take a 3cm cube, identical shape:

Volume = 3 x 3 x 3 = 27cm3
Surface area = 6 faces x (3 x 3) = 54cm2

So for 27cm3 of volume there are 54cm2 of surface area to lose heat
from, 54 / 27 = 2cm2 per 1cm3

surface-area : volume ratio is 2:1

This means that for identically shaped animals of di"erent sizes, the large
one will keep its temperature more easily. The small cube has 3 times the
surface area per unit of volume to cause it to cool down compared to the
large cube.

It doesn't matter what the shape is, the principle stays the same for all
geometrically identical shapes - including animal shapes.

Being big means being warmer

It's penguins fat layer that protects them against the cold more than
anything while in the sea. On the land however their feathers have a very
valuable function in keeping them warm. Penguin feathers aren't like the
large flat feathers that flying birds have, they are short with an under-layer
of fine woolly down. Penguin feathers are also very good at shedding
water when the bird emerges from the sea. They overlap and give a good
streamlined e"ect in the water and excellent wind-shedding abilities when
on the land. When it gets very cold, penguins can pu" their feathers out to
trap more air for even better insulation. When it gets too hot (like as high
as freezing point even!) they flu" their feathers out even more so that the
trapped warm air can escape and enable the penguin to cool down.

Penguins have two areas where their body is very poorly insulated and
where they can lose a lot of heat, these are their flippers and their feet.
These regions give penguins at the same time a problem and a solution. A
problem because of the heat loss, and a solution because they can be
used for cooling down. It's all well and good being brilliantly insulated, but
when you use a lot of energy and so generate heat, or the temperature
rises, not being able to lose that heat becomes a big disadvantage in

The solution is really quite elegant. The muscles that operate feet and
flippers are not located in the feet and flippers, but deeper in the warmer
regions of the penguins body. The feet and flippers are moved by tendons
that pass through them and attach to the bones of the toes, ankle, and
wrist like a sort of remote operation by wire or string. This means that it
doesn't matter if the feet and flippers get really cold as they can still be
operated normally by muscles in regions that are fully functional and at
normal body temperature.

Penguins have a heat-exchange blood-flow to these regions called the
Rete Mirabile. The warm blood entering the feet or flippers flows past cold
blood leaving so warming it up in the process and cooling the blood
entering at the same time. Blood in these parts is significantly colder than
in the rest of the body. By the time the blood re-enters the rest of the
body it has been warmed up and so doesn't have so great an e"ect in
cooling the core body temperature.

Penguins feet are never allowed to get below freezing point, blood flow is
finely adjusted so that they are kept just above. When it gets very cold,
the feet are covered by the feathers and fat layer of the body so they are
not exposed to cooling winds. So while a man standing barefoot on ice
would quickly get frostbitten, penguins can do so all their lives with no
damage at all.

At low temperatures or when in the sea, the blood flow to feet and flippers
is very low anyway so reducing heat loss further. When the penguin needs
to lose heat quickly, the blood flow to these extremities is increased and
so lots of warm blood enters them which cools quickly so dumping
excess heat rapidly and e#ciently.

Some penguins can even be seen to "blush" on the inside of their flippers
when getting rid of excess heat as blood flow is directed to the surface.

Don't touch unless necessary
Ice and snow are cold. Lying on on snow, you would be really cold as
there would be a large area of contact to lose body heat though
conduction. Stand up and immediately your area of contact reduces
enormously, stand on tip-toes and your area of contact is reduced to a

This is what penguins do except they don't stand on tip-toes when it's
really cold, they rock backwards on their heels, holding their toes up. How
do they stop themselves from falling over backwards? They support
themselves by their sti" tail feathers that have no blood flow and so lose
no heat.

So in the coldest conditions, penguins sit there supported on a tripod of
two feet (heels) with reduced blood flow - see previous section - and a
sti" tail through which they lose no heat at all.

Hang around in gangs

Emperor penguin huddle
photo Warner BrosEmperor penguins live in probably the most extreme
conditions endured by any warm-blooded animal on earth. They even
breed in the depths of the Antarctic winter at temperatures of -30°C
(-22°F) and below while putting up with winds of 200 kmh (125mph) and
more which gives a wind chill factor that you don't even want to think
about that would freeze exposed human flesh in seconds.
Even worse, the emperors breed and overwinter on permanent ice shelf
far from open sea where there isn't any chance of being able to feed so
the penguins not only endure horrendously cold conditions, but do so
with little or no shelter, without feeding - fasting for months - and in the
darkness of the long Antarctic winter night.

The males endure the worst conditions looking after the egg on land (or
ice) for months on end while the females build up their reserves by
feeding at sea. By the time the females return the males may have lost
40% of their body weight. Relief is not even immediate as when the male
hands over the egg to the female, he faces a march to the sea that is
typically 50 to 100 km, but can be up to 200 km (125 miles). His total
period sea to sea before he can catch any live food again living on stored
fat can be 115 days or more.

Despite these privations, the emperor penguin maintains a core body
temperature at a steady 38°C (100.4°F). Scientists have worked out that
even with the great weight loss of stored body fat, it cannot provide
su#cient energy to allow the penguins to maintain their body temperature
and so survive the winter, so how do they do it?

The emperor penguins secret is huddling. Really just an extension of the
"be big" method of surviving extreme cold. Emperor penguins have
developed a social behaviour that when it gets cold, they huddle together
in groups that may comprise several thousand penguins. That way for
most of the group, where their feathers end, instead of all of them having
to face the biting wind and relentless cold, most of them have another
warm penguin blanket to shield them instead. The surface area of the
group is greatly reduced and a great deal of warmth and body fat
conserved. Of course it's not quite so great for the individuals on the
outside of the group as they only have a part of their body protected and
warmed by the other penguins. So there is a continual movement of
penguins from the outside of the group to the centre so displacing the
warmer and more protected penguins to the outside where they will take
their turn in the worst places against the wind and raw cold.

Calculations show that a solitary emperor penguin in these conditions
could burn up 0.2kg of fat per day to stay warm and alive while huddling
penguins need only about 0.1kg per day. Without huddling, emperor
penguins just wouldn't be able to breed in the Antarctic winter at all. The
young penguin chicks also huddle together for warmth when left behind
on the sea-ice by the parents who have to go o" fishing for food.

More about emperor penguins

Summary of how penguins Thermoregulate (keep their body temperature

1/ Overlapping densely packed feathers make a surface almost
impenetrable to wind or water. Feathers provide waterproofing in water
that is critical to penguins survival in water, Antarctic seas may be as cold
as -2.2°C (28°F) and rarely get above +2°C (35.6°F). Tufts of down on
shafts below the feathers trap air. This trapped layer of air in the feathers
provides 80% to 84% of the thermal insulation for penguins. The layer of
trapped air is compressed during dives and can dissipate after prolonged
diving, so leaving the insulation to the layer of fat. Like all birds penguins
rearrange their feathers by preening.

2/ To retain heat, penguins may tuck in their flippers close to their bodies,
this reduces the surface area available for heat loss. They also may shiver
to generate additional heat.

3/ A fat layer improves insulation in cold water, but probably is not
su#cient on its own to keep the body temperature stable at sea for long.
Penguins must remain active while in water to generate body heat. Unlike
other warm blooded Antarctic marine animals such as seals and whales,
penguins are still relatively small, so the "be big" strategy is not taken as
far as needed to remain warm at all times in the sea as in seals and

4/ Cold climate penguin species usually have longer feathers and thicker
fat than those in warmer climates.

5/ The dark colored feathers of a penguin's dorsal surface (their back)
absorb heat from the sun, so helping them to warm up.

6/ King and emperor penguins are able to tip up their feet, and rest their
entire weight on a tripod of the heels and tail, reducing contact with the
icy surface and so reducing heat loss.

7/ Emperor and king penguin chicks and adults huddle together to
conserve heat. Up to 6,000 male emperor penguins will huddle together
while incubating their eggs during the middle of the Antarctic winter.

8/ Emperor penguins can recapture up to 80% of the heat escaping
through their breath thanks to a complex heat exchange system in their
nasal passages.

9/ On land in warmer weather, overheating can be a problem.

i) Penguins can cool down by moving to shaded areas and by panting
(like dogs do when they're hot).

ii) Penguins can ru$e their feathers, this breaks up the insulating air layer
next to the skin, so releasing the warm air and cooling them down (like
opening the front of a coat when you're too warm and waving it about a

iii) Penguins can increase their heat loss by holding the flippers away from
the body, so both surfaces of the flippers are exposed to air, releasing

iv) warmer climate temperate species, such as the Humboldt and African
penguins, don't have feathers on their legs and have bare patches on
their faces where excess heat can be lost.

10/ Penguins circulatory systems can adjust conserving or releasing heat
to keep the temperature constant.

i) To conserve heat, blood flowing to the flippers and legs transfers its
heat to blood that is leaving the flippers and legs. This is known as
counter current heat exchange and enables the heat to remain in the body
rather than ever actually reaching the legs or flippers.

ii) If the body becomes too warm, blood vessels in the skin dilate (get
wider), bringing heat from within the body to the surface, where it can be
lost. This is a common response in warm blooded birds and mammals,
you do it when you exercise and go red in the face or when you blush.