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a penguin standing on a rocky surface with mountains in the background

The Penguin’s Natural Insulation

The Emperor has no clothes! The Emperor Penguin that is. So how in the wild, wintry world does it stay warm? (Not by wearing a tuxedo with long johns underneath as some may believe).

Living deep in the perpetual Antarctic winter, penguins are subject to the most brutal weather of any mammal on earth! Temperatures stay well below zero and winds whip up to 125 mph. And you thought we‘ve had a tough winter! Believe or not, the Emperor Penguin‘s body temperature is warmer than ours—over 100 degrees—and if it falls they cannot survive.

Fortunately, nature has blessed this warm-blooded mammal with unique methods to keep itself from getting frostbite. (Unfortunately, with respect to shark bite, penguins are totally on their own.)

Body fat is key. The Emperor Penguin has a lot of body fat stored in a lot of body mass (65 pounds), with only a small fraction being exposed to the elements. This means it can keep a lot of heat stored inside for long periods of time. This fat layer is especially important when they go for a swim. It keeps them safe and warm down to about 25 degrees above zero, which is the coldest ocean water can get before it freezes.

It may not be evident, but penguins DO have feathers, not so they can fly, but to keep them warm on land. Unlike birds, the feathers are short with a woolly down undercoat for warmth. The dark feathers on the backside absorb the sun‘s heat, helping them to warm up.

The penguin‘s flippers and feet are its only poorly insulated areas. No problem! The muscles for the feet and flippers are tucked safely away from the cold, deep inside its warm body. So when a penguin gets cold feet, it can still function—if you know what I mean.

Another method of keeping its feet warm is to keep them protected from the wind by covering them with feathers and fat.

Also, when it gets really, really cold, they rock back and forth on their heels, supporting themselves by their tail feathers, in order to have as little contact with the ice and snow as possible.

Emperor penguins are no birdbrains when it comes to implementing a “social” insulation scheme, either. They simply “circle the wagons”. Thousands of penguins huddle together, with those on the periphery taking the hit so the one‘s inside can stay warm. Since there is a continual movement of penguins from the outside of the group to the center, everyone takes their turn at staying warm and nearly freezing to death!

For the Emperor Penguin, life at the bottom of the world is good. With all the natural insulation they need to keep warm, we don‘t expect to be hearing from them anytime soon!

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