October 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

King penguin and chick (ref:SPL)

If a human stopped feeding their child for 5 months it would soon be a matter of national news and public outcry. However, it seems King Penguins don’t mind if their children go hungry, in fact, they leave them for months on end.

New research from the University of Strasbourg has shown that King Penguin chicks have developed ways to keep cool and carry on as they are expected to fast for up to 5 months. The researchers implanted data-collecting chips into the chicks, which collected information on the temperature of individual body parts, from the chest to the stomach.

“With their large size, round shape, high thermal insulation of the down and thick subcutaneous fat layer, king penguin chicks are morphologically well adapted to harsh environmental conditions” states the paper. However, during extreme weather conditions they found that the body temperature of the chicks dropped by up to 15 degrees centigrade, a huge drop for such a big bird. They found that at only 3 months old, when a human baby would be growing every day, these little balls of fluff have to stop growing, lower their heart rate and drop their core temperature. Adult King Penguin’s don’t experience this same temperature drop unless they are foraging in deep sea for extended periods of time.

The babies also huddle into creches, but they don’t create a microclimate like Emperor penguins are known to, or use each other for protection. Instead they use each other as a security blanket, aiding nap time and in turn their energy stores.
This temperature drop was also seen when the chicks ingested freezing cold, pre-digested fish their parents regurgitated for them. Although, I think if that was the best present my parents could give me after five months separation, I’d give them the cold shoulder too.

Reference: Eichhorn, G. et al. Heterothermy in growing king penguins. Nat Commun 2, 435, doi:http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v2/n8/suppinfo/ncomms1436_S1.html (2011).