Study Shows King Penguin Breeding Colonies Move Like Liquid

A king penguin breeding colony on Possession Island, Crozet Archipelago. Photo by © Céline Le Bohec (CNRS / IPEV / CSM)

WOODS HOLE – A new study from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researchers and international colleagues shows that colonies of breeding king penguins behave like particles in liquids.

King penguins are one of two species which do not build nests and instead pairs lay a single egg per breeding season. The parents take turns incubating and protecting the eggs by carrying them on their feet.

The pairs form very large and dense colonies which were examined and photographed from helicopters over several years at two colonies.

The images were then analyzed using radial distribution function, a mathematical relationship that helps describe how the atoms pack around one another in solids, liquids or gases.

Computer simulations of their movements resembled those of molecules in a 2D liquid.

This “liquid” organization and structure enables breeding colonies to protect themselves against predators while also keeping members together.

King penguins have a very long breeding cycle of more than 14 months, which leads to a constant mixture of early and late breeders.

The next step in the research is to develop methods to remotely assess the state of breeding colonies as most are remote and rarely visited – and only a few aerial photos exist.

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