Groups of emperor penguins save energy and protect from the cold during incubation thanks to social huddling.

How a penguin colony works as a system to allow all penguins a chance to be warm. Artists: Hang Hyun Cho, Chun Ting Tsai


“Although huddling was shown to be the key by which emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) save energy and sustain their breeding fast during the Antarctic winter, the intricacies of this social behavior have been poorly studied. We recorded abiotic variables with data loggers glued to the feathers of eight individually marked emperor penguins to investigate their thermoregulatory behavior and to estimate their ‘huddling time budget’ throughout the breeding season (pairing and incubation period). Contrary to the classic view, huddling episodes were discontinuous and of short and variable duration, lasting 1.6 ± 1.7 (S.D.) h on average. Despite heterogeneous huddling groups, birds had equal access to the warmth of the huddles. Throughout the breeding season, males huddled for 38 ± 18% (S.D.) of their time, which raised the ambient temperature that birds were exposed to above 0 °C (at average external temperatures of − 17 °C). As a consequence of tight huddles, ambient temperatures were above 20 °C during 13 ± 12% (S.D.) of their huddling time. Ambient temperatures increased up to 37.5 °C, close to birds’ body temperature. This complex social behavior therefore enables all breeders to get a regular and equal access to an environment which allows them to save energy and successfully incubate their eggs during the Antarctic winter.” (Gilbert 2006:479)

Journal article
Huddling behavior in emperor penguins: Dynamics of huddlingPhysiology & BehaviorJune 7, 2006

“For Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri), huddling is the key to survival during the Antarctic winter. Penguins in a huddle are packed so tightly that individual movements become impossible, reminiscent of a jamming transition in compacted colloids. It is crucial, however, that the huddle structure is continuously reorganized to give each penguin a chance to spend sufficient time inside the huddle, compared with time spent on the periphery. Here we show that Emperor penguins move collectively in a highly coordinated manner to ensure mobility while at the same time keeping the huddle packed. Every 30–60 seconds, all penguins make small steps that travel as a wave through the entire huddle. Over time, these small movements lead to large-scale reorganization of the huddle. Our data show that the dynamics of penguin huddling is governed by intermittency and approach to kinetic arrest in striking analogy with inert non-equilibrium systems, including soft glasses and colloids.” (Zitterbart et al. 2011:e20260)

Coordinated movements prevent jamming in an emperor penguin huddleDaniel P. Zitterbart , Barbara Wienecke, James P. Butler, Ben Fabry

Living System/s

Emperor PenguinAptenodytes forsteriSpecies