NCBI ROFL: The physics of penguin huddling.

By ncbi rofl | November 3, 2011 6:38 pm

Coordinated movements prevent jamming in an Emperor penguin huddle.

“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.”

Bonus quote from the Discussion in the full text:

“In addition, huddle movements allow separate smaller huddles to merge into larger clusters. Such merging is analogous to the merging of magnetic domains as the thermodynamic temperature is decreased towards the Curie point, the temperature above which a magnet loses its magnetism, or analogous to a phase transition in a disordered material that is brought towards a critical point. This is an essential process in condensed matter physics, penguins included.”

Related content:
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: How hard can I snuggle my penguin without waking him?
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: Penguins on treadmills. Need we say more?
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: The sea lion solution to sexual harrassment: keep fewer males around.

WTF is NCBI ROFL? Read our FAQ!

  • Fagbearing1

    glad to get your message.

  • Zwittgensteinbeck

    Mandelbrot would be proud, perhaps. 

    also, i’d wager a hefty sum that the set of algorithms needed to generate this kind of phenomena in silico is not complicated. I wonder if the rules that govern this category of behavior can apply to the fluid mosaic model of bi-lipid membranes, or solvent packing around proteins. 

    Has anyone checked to see if large groups of other warm blooded terrestrial vertebrates (*cough* humans) exhibit similar coordination? There might be some nifty Black Friday models to tinker with.

  • BrianToo

    Poor shivery penguins!


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NCBI ROFL is the brainchild of two Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students at UC Berkeley and features real research articles from the PubMed database (which is housed by the National Center for Biotechnology information, aka NCBI) that they find amusing (ROFL is a commonly-used internet acronym for "rolling on the floor, laughing"). Follow us on twitter: @ncbirofl


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