Penguins, beautiful penguins

From National Geographic online, we have a brief article by Glenn Hodges and some splendid photos by Paul Nicklen of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri), the largest and most stately species of the Sphenisciformes.

Here are some of Nicklen’s photos (and Hodges’s text, indented; captions are from the article:

Preparing to launch from the sea to the sea ice, an emperor penguin reaches maximum speed.Photograph by Paul Nicklen (www.paulnicklen.com)

Preparing to launch from the sea to the sea ice, an emperor penguin reaches maximum speed.
All photos by Paul Nicklen (www.paulnicklen.com)

Note the bubbles.  As Hodges reports, these may be key to understanding why they can swim so fast, not only to catch prey but also to make that hasty exist from the water:

With the help of Poul Larsen, a mechanical engineer at the Technical University of Denmark, they analyzed hours of underwater footage and discovered that the penguins were doing something that engineers had long tried to do with boats and torpedoes: They were using air as a lubricant to cut drag and increase speed.

When an emperor penguin swims through the water, it is slowed by the friction between its body and the water, keeping its maximum speed somewhere between four and nine feet a second. But in short bursts the penguin can double or even triple its speed by releasing air from its feathers in the form of tiny bubbles. These reduce the density and viscosity of the water around the penguin’s body, cutting drag and enabling the bird to reach speeds that would otherwise be impossible. (As an added benefit, the extra speed helps the penguins avoid predators such as leopard seals.)

The key to this talent is in the penguin’s feathers. Like other birds, emperors have the capacity to fluff their feathers and insulate their bodies with a layer of air. But whereas most birds have rows of feathers with bare skin between them, emperor penguins have a dense, uniform coat of feathers. And because the bases of their feathers include tiny filaments—just 20 microns in diameter, less than half the width of a thin human hair—air is trapped in a fine, downy mesh and released as microbubbles so tiny that they form a lubricating coat on the feather surface.

An airborne penguin shows why it has a need for speed: To get out of the water, it may have to clear several feet of ice. A fast exit also helps it elude leopard seals, which often lurk at the ice edge.

An airborne penguin shows why it has a need for speed: To get out of the water, it may have to clear several feet of ice. A fast exit also helps it elude leopard seals, which often lurk at the ice edge.

Here’s a video taken by Nicklen showing how they can release bubbles to speed up:

If you haven’t seen the movie “March of the Penguins,” I recommend it highly.

At a colony on the frozen Ross Sea, emperor parents and chicks bask in the brief summer sun. The distance to open water varies with the season; in midwinter birds may have to cross many miles of ice to feed.

At a colony on the frozen Ross Sea, emperor parents and chicks bask in the brief summer sun. The distance to open water varies with the season; in midwinter birds may have to cross many miles of ice to feed.

The danger of ambush by leopard seals is greatest when entering the water, so penguins sometimes linger at the edge of an ice hole for hours, waiting for one bold bird to plunge in.

The danger of ambush by leopard seals is greatest when entering the water, so penguins sometimes linger at the edge of an ice hole for hours, waiting for one bold bird to plunge in.

Emperors can bolt away for any number of reasons, as photographer Paul Nicklen discovered when he spooked this group. “A tenth of a second after I took this picture, all I could see were bubbles.”

Emperors can bolt away for any number of reasons, as photographer Paul Nicklen discovered when he spooked this group. “A tenth of a second after I took this picture, all I could see were bubbles.”

“These penguins have probably never seen a human in the water,” says photographer Paul Nicklen, “but it took them only seconds to realize that I posed no danger. They relaxed and allowed me to share their hole in the sea ice.”

“These penguins have probably never seen a human in the water,” says photographer Paul Nicklen, “but it took them only seconds to realize that I posed no danger. They relaxed and allowed me to share their hole in the sea ice.”

Emperor penguins are Olympian swimmers, capable of diving to 1,750 feet and remaining underwater 20 minutes on a single breath. “I was mesmerized by their beautiful bubble trails,” says Nicklen, who braved 28°F water to capture these images.

Emperor penguins are Olympian swimmers, capable of diving to 1,750 feet and remaining underwater 20 minutes on a single breath. “I was mesmerized by their beautiful bubble trails,” says Nicklen, who braved 28°F water to capture these images.

And I find this picture mesmerizing; they almost look like ctenophores in the background:

Emperor penguins mill in the depths as they prepare for their swift ascent to the sea ice. “Once they start to launch,” says Nicklen, “within 30 seconds they’re all standing on the ice.”

Emperor penguins mill in the depths as they prepare for their swift ascent to the sea ice. “Once they start to launch,” says Nicklen, “within 30 seconds they’re all standing on the ice.”

It is my dream to see these in the wild one day (a dream second only to petting a tiger cub). Can someone get me a gig as a lecturer on a Lindblad tour?

h/t: SGM

 

24 Comments

  1. abandonwoo
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I loved everything about this article and the video except for the moment the photographer/narrator said the birds are doing what they are ‘designed’ to do.

  2. Mary Canada
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Beautiful creatures and amazing photos.

  3. darrelle
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Awesome and beautiful.

  4. Marcoli
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the trick with air could be done on boats, where they pump air into an outer hull, then out through fine slots. Lots of practical problems, like keeping the slots from being damaged and clogged with debris. Still, would be good to check on. Think of the savings in fuel, for example.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      The bubble trick would be useful only for high-speed submersibles that (like penguins) must remain fully underwater. For surface craft, I doubt it could compete with existing technologies such as hydrofoils or hovercraft that lift the hull completely out of the water.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      People have been trying this, with variable degrees of success, for decades, for exactly the reasons you suggest.
      Sorry, no patents for you!

      • Marcoli
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        OK, guess I gotta get back to work at my teaching job.

  5. PeteJohn
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Love penguins! Thanks for sharing this!

  6. Dave Ricks
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    True Fact:
    March of the Penguins was narrated by Morgan Freeman.

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      I mean, narrated by Morgan Freeman.

      • pktom64
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        This “true facts” is great! (As is Morgan Freeman).

        True fact: the movie is originally called “La Marche de l’Empereur”. I think it could have translated well enough without changing it…

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

        OMG, that has got to be the best Ze Frank I’ve come across yet. Thanks for that.

  7. David Duncan
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    David Attenborough did a wonderful six part series called “Life in the Freezer”. I wholeheartedly recommend it, as penguins are featured prominently.

    I think penguins milling around holes in the ice have been known to push one of their fellows so someone else can find out the hard way if leopard seals or killer whales are about.

    Is there a guide somewhere that explains how to do italics, etc, here?

    • David Duncan
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      I’d like to go down there too. I’d love to have my photo taken “talking” to a king or emperor, while wearing a tuxedo.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Is there a guide somewhere that explains how to do italics, etc, here?

      It’s pretty much standard HTML. I’m sure there are thousands of how-to guides out there.

      • David Duncan
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        italics

      • David Duncan
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

        Okay, thanks.

  8. Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    (True fact: the original French version, L’Marche de l’empereur was narrated by Romane Bohringer, Charles Berling, and Jules Siruk).

    Anyway, I have heard that when it reached the U.S. as The March of the Penguins, fundamentalist audiences were enthralled — how could evolution possibly explain the parental care with parents one parent foraging for weeks to months while the other cares for the egg or the chick? And how could it explain the long march across ice to the sea? Proof of special creation!

    For moment I wondered myself when I saw the film, and then I immediately recalled all the marine birds that nest on rock ledges near the sea, where parents take turns foraging and switch roles. Add an ice sheet that gets progressively wider across which they must travel, and there is s direct route to penguin behaviors from these seabird behaviors.

    • Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

      ” … is a direct route …”

    • Marlene Zuk
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      For reasons not at all clear to me, penguins seem to be moral lightning rods for a number of behaviors, including homosexuality and monogamy. Of course it turns out that many penguins switch partners between seasons, and as Joe says they are like all kinds of seabirds that can only produce one chick and can’t rear it unless both parents participate. (I wrote an essay on this for Nature several years ago in which I am proud to say they used my idea for a title: Family Values in Black and White.)

  9. Diane G.
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    sub

  10. Occam
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    ‘Escape Velocity’, indeed!
    I am completely awed by the work of Paul Nicklen. His ‘inside’ glimpse of a sea leopard’s dentition must be among the most alarming shots ever.
    But these penguin shots top everything yet.

    TED talks may have slipped a bit over the years, but I recommend Nicklen’s 2011 TED performance on the subject of polar ice loss.

    If some future, or alien, civilisation were ever to take stock of our ecological collapse and ask whether any sentient beings were trying to alert the rest of their misbegotten fellow humanoids, the name of Paul Nicklen should be among those deserving remembrance.

  11. David Duncan
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    ;Flying Penguins

    Hope I get this right…

  12. Launcher
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Only last week I was at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, which has an excellent penguin exhibit. The windows lining the side of the penguin pool give a great view of the birds while their swimming, and for the first time I noticed the tiny bubbles clinging to and streaming from their feathers.

    And now I know why! Thanks for the great post.


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