Life exists even in continents or areas that are freezing cold such as Antarctica. Seals, petrels, whales and penguins are just a few examples. The huge amount of living creatures in such low temperatures brings to mind the question “How can they stay warm in the freezing cold weather of Antarctica?”. In this article, we will explain the answer to this question through penguins.
Let’s start with a brief introduction to penguins. Of course, we all know penguins but a little biological aspect won’t hurt. So, penguins are mammals that are classified as birds, specifically flightless birds, that live in the Southern Hemisphere. They are mainly classified into four species: emperors, gentoos, chinstraps, and adelies. They have wings, but they are not evolved to fly because they had little or no threat from predators. However, given the environmental conditions they live in and the webbed feet they have, they are excellent swimmers. Those webbed feet, help them create a drag force while inside water and reach speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. Emperor penguins can even dive up to 500 metres below the surface of the ocean to catch their prey. This requires incredible resistance to high pressure and low temperatures.
Up until here, we have learned overall information about penguins. Now, let’s turn back to our question: How can penguins, for our article we will focus on emperor penguins, stay warm in the freezing cold weather of Antarctica?
The first secret is their body arrangements. Their bodies are adapted to have relatively small beaks, flippers, legs and feet with the larger main bodies. This is because those areas such as hands and feet are where living creatures lose heat the first, the most and the easiest. Having smaller sections of those body parts allows penguins to lose less heat in a longer period of time as the particles will have a smaller surface area to escape from. Furthermore, since the muscles operating feet and flippers are not physically found in those parts but instead in warmer regions in the body, they can still function even if they are in contact with freezing temperatures. This helps with the continuous operation and activeness of the penguins’ bodies. Along with the specialized body parts, the four layers of overlapping feathers and thick layers of fat provide further protection from environmental conditions and allows penguin skin to be waterproof. Feathers mostly protect the outer body from wind, tsunamis, or hurricanes and help increase the impermeability of water. Being waterproof is essentially important for penguins to not sweat and not lose heat via evaporation. Their feathers being black also helps with warming up since black shade absorbs heat from the sun the most. They can “puff” their feathers out to trap more air for even better insulation when the temperatures get unbearable. The fat layer, on the other hand, works to trap heat inside the body and doesn’t allow it to be given out, especially when they are underwater. This fat layer is the best known internal insulation in a living creature and supports penguins to operate in cold temperatures. One last miraculous body structure is the arrangement of veins and arteries. These are specially arranged in a way that allows the heat to be “recycled”. By their special structures, the heat given out can be easily taken in again.
Although their special body parts and arrangements definitely are the number one protector and adapter for them against freezing temperatures, they have developed a few techniques themselves to decrease the heat loss as much as they can. One technique they created is known as the “huddle time”. This specifically takes place in spring, when the penguin chicks must hatch. After laying their eggs, there is a 4-month period where the eggs must be protected from harsh environments. In order to do this, male emperor penguins gather close together in big groups and minimize the amount of cold air and wind getting in. Another fact about huddle time is that during this period, the male emperor penguins do not eat anything and only get nutrients from their already-existing fat stores.
Another technique the penguins have developed to survive in freezing temperatures is basically not to contact the ice or snow as much. They do this by rocking backwards on their heels and holding their toes up. They manage to stop themselves from falling backwards by using their stiff tail feathers that have no blood flow and so do not cause loss of heat.
Yes, these amazing emperor penguins have evolved and developed techniques suitable to their living conditions. But they all will lose their value the moment their habitats are destroyed. By who? Whales? Seals? No. Humans. If the temperatures rise and sea ice disappears gradually, these animals will be facing extinction. Let’s not do that and take action on climate change now.
Younger, Jane. “Curious Kids: How Can Penguins Stay Warm in the Freezing Cold Waters of Antarctica?” The Conversation, 12 May 2021, theconversation.com/curious-kids-how-can-penguins-stay-warm-in-the-freezing-cold-waters-of-antarctica-116831.
“Why Can’t Penguins Fly?” Wonderopolis, http://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/why-cant-penguins-fly.
Barrow, Mandy. How Penguins Have Adapted to Their Environment, 2013, http://www.primaryhomeworkhelp.co.uk/adaptations/penguins.htm.
“How Do Penguins Keep Warm? Science of the Cold.” How Do Penguins Stay Warm and Other Adaptions to Their Environment, http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/science/cold_penguins.php.