Animals have evolved in myriad ways to protect against the cold. Whales insulate with blubber. Bison congregate near geothermal springs. Black bears shelter in caves. And emperor penguins, facing Antarctica’s subzero temperatures and gale-force winds, huddle.
“A penguin huddle looks like organized chaos,” says François Blanchette, a mathematician at the University of California, Merced. “Every penguin acts individually, but the end result is an equitable heat distribution for the whole community.”
It turns out that penguins execute their huddles with a high degree of mathematical efficiency, as Blanchette and his team discovered. More recently, Daniel Zitterbart, a physicist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, helped develop and install high-resolution cameras to observe undisturbed huddling behavior. Zitterbart’s team recently determined which conditions cause penguins to huddle, and they’re investigating the possibility that the penguins’ mathematical behavior may, over time, reveal secrets about colony health.
At the bottom of the world, hundreds of thousands of emperor penguins emerge from the sea each April to trek more than 50 miles to their inland colonies. After breeding, the females return to the sea for food while the males stay behind, each incubating a solitary egg in a pouch above their feet. Without nests or food, they brave the elements by huddling together on stable pack ice to maximize ambient heat and minimize exposure.