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How Do King Penguins Navigate in Extremely Crowded Environments?

NSF Award:

International Research Fellowship Program: The Quest of King Penguins: Orientation in a Crowded Environment  (Nesterova, Anna)

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Researchers have found that even at the age of 10 months, king penguin chicks have well-developed navigational abilities.

The findings shed light on an essential survival skill for king penguins.

Many of us have been lost in a crowd, desperately searching for family, friends or landmarks, but unable to see through the throngs of people all around us. If only we knew how to search! King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) seem to solve this problem easily. They have an extraordinary ability to locate a square-meter residence area on flat sub-Antarctic beach crowded with as many as 100,000 individuals.

Navigating in a Crowd

Large numbers of animals in colonies can obstruct visual, acoustic and other cues, making navigation especially challenging. Researcher Anna Nesterova is unravelling the mechanisms of short-range navigation that allow king penguins to find their places in the colony in spite of all the odds against it. The flightless nature of penguins adds an additional layer of complexity for orientation in the colony. It also makes their situation similar to what we humans might face.

Nesterova's research group has demonstrated that even at the age of 10 months, king penguin chicks can return to their exact place in the colony even if displaced by a half kilometre. In field experiments, the researchers manipulated the availability of visual, acoustic and magnetic cues, and then tested the ability of chicks to return to their places in the colony after a displacement. The results, obtained using high-precision GPS tracking, suggest that visual and acoustic cues are important for chick's navigation. Chicks pay special attention to the global features of the landscape such as hills and lakes, but disregard local features such as whale skeletons or rock formations.

The sound of the colony also can be a determining factor in the chicks' initial orientation. On the other hand, the distortion of magnetic cues has no effect on chicks' homing ability.

To address navigation questions in adult king penguins and analyze movement patterns, Nesterova collaborated with colleagues from Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Strasbourg, France. They found that while younger birds (less than 8 years old) prefer to move when at least some visual cues are available, older birds can enter the colony even in complete darkness.

How older birds manage to maneuvre among thousands of individuals to a specific place in the colony during dark nights remains a mystery.

Images (1 of )

  • Large colony of king penguins
  • a penguin chick waits for its parents
  • king penguin chicks slide down whale carcass
King penguin colonies can stretch over several kilometers. Older chicks are left unattended in groups while parents search for food; this is a group of 10- to 12-month-old chicks next to breeding adults.
Anna Nesterova
A penguin chick must remain in the colony's "rendezvous zone" in order to be found and fed by its parents.
Anna Nesterova
Penguin games: king penguin chicks slide down an old whale carcass.
Anna Nesterova

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