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article imagePenguin huddles are like ‘traffic jams’

By Tim Sandle     Jan 6, 2014 in Environment
To stay warm and conserve energy during the breeding season emperor penguins form huddles, with thousands of birds packing in close together. New research describes the movement like "waves in a traffic jam."
Emperor penguins, the largest of all the penguin species, have a unique pattern during the breeding season. During this time, the males incubate the eggs, tucking them in an abdominal pouch just above their feet. In order to keep warm and conserve energy during the breeding season emperor penguins form huddles, with thousands of birds packing in close together.
While balancing an on egg on its feet, a male bird is unable to move fast. However, the bird can take small, careful steps. The problem is, as the Daily Telegraph explains, that just one step can set off a wave of motion that passes through the huddle. This wave moves like cars in a traffic jam, according to a new study.
The study was conducted by Daniel Zitterbart of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. Their findings have been published in the New Journal of Physics.
According to the study, every 30 to 60 seconds, emperor penguins in a huddle take small steps that travel through the group like a wave. The researchers described this as penguins acting like cars in a traffic jam. However, instead of only moving forward, each bird could move in one of six directions. When a bird takes a single step that motion results in a cascade of birds each taking a step, with a small time lag between one bird’s action and the next bird’s.
More about Penguin, Traffic, Cars, Emperor penguins
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