Emperor Penguins Colder Than Antarctic Air

Emperor penguins have always known they’re really chill, and now scientists know it too. Yesterday in Biology Letters, a team of French researchers published the results of a study of hundreds of thermal photographs that they took in Antarctica in the summer of 2008. I guess they had to scratch their heads for awhile to explain the results because the images show that the outer layer of the birds’ feathers is four to six degrees Celcius colder than the air around them. Brrr.

As everyone who has seen 2005 instant classic March of the Penguin knows, the emperor penguin species is famous for being the only species determined — or crazy — enough to breed in the icy cold of the Antarctic winter. If the ice and snow aren’t bad enough, you can have some impressive windchill with air temperatures around 400 Celcius and wind speeds of up to 144 kilometers per hour. Antarctica is cold, people.

National Geographic videos taken in 2011 actually show how the emperor penguins can huddle together, taking small steps in the flock to create an undulating wave to help the birds stay warm.

However, having an outer layer of feathers that’s actually colder than the air around it doesn’t sound particularly warm to me. The French scientists have now explained how it works. The penguin’s body is actually draining heat from the outer feathers to keep the core warm, which is why the outer plumage ends up being so cold. Imagine how frost builds up on your lawn, for example, while the roots below stay warm.

Hollywood has known that penguins are forever cool for years. While March of the Penguins is pretty much a reality show, there are lots of fictional stories that feature penguins too. Madagascar just wouldn’t be the same without the bumbling penguins, and films like Happy Feet and Mr. Popper’s Penguins put the birds center-stage.

Check out this thermal image of a chillin’ emperor penguin courtesy of the Université de Strasbourg team:

emperor penguin thermal

I’ll be the first to admit that I wish I were as cool as an emperor penguin.