Image: Penguins in a colony pack extremely tightly together
March of the Penguins (National Geographic film)
Penguins in a colony pack extremely tightly together, but still shuffle around without crushing anyone.
By Senior Writer
updated 11/16/2012 7:52:07 PM ET 2012-11-17T00:52:07

Greed is good for penguins that huddle together to avoid Antarctica's icy weather.

According to a new study, penguin groups can maximize everyone's heat when individual birds act selfishly, huddling in ways that keep them toastiest.

"Even if penguins are only selfish, only trying to find the best spot for themselves and not thinking about their community, there is still equality in the amount of time that each penguin spends exposed to the wind," study researcher Francois Blanchette, a mathematician at the University of California, Merced, who normally studies fluid dynamics, said in a statement.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

Blanchette became interested in penguin huddles after watching the hit documentary "The March of the Penguins." He and his colleagues made mathematical models of penguin huddles, varying wind strength and turbulence to see what sort of shapes arose. The model calculated which penguin along the edge of the huddle would be coldest and had that penguin move toward the center of the huddle in a sort of constant rotation.

These models produced long, thin huddles that gradually crept away from the wind direction. In real life, penguin huddles are more rotund, so researchers went about making their models more realistic. They added an element of uncertainty, such as wind eddies and differences in size of the huddled penguins. The result was huddles that look much like those seen on real Antarctic ice. [ Album: The Penguins of Deception Island ]

"A penguin huddle is a self-sufficient system in which the animals rely on each other for shelter, and I think that is what makes it fair," Blanchette said. An obstacle to the ideal shape, such as a wall, would likely make the huddles less fair, he added.

Blanchette and his mathematician colleagues report their work Friday in the journal PLOS ONE, and will present the findings at the American Physical Society's fluid dynamic conference next week in San Diego. They hope to get feedback from biologists on their findings. The model may also help biologists refine their observations of penguins in the field by letting them know what behaviors to look for in huddles.

Blanchette also hopes the penguin study will help spread the word about his first love, math.

"Nearly everybody seems to love penguins, and not enough people love math," he said. "If we use math to study penguins, we could potentially teach more people to love math, too!"

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience@livescience. We're also on Facebook &Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Photos: Unseen Worlds

loading photos...
  1. An aphid on a leaf

    The 2012 FEI Image Contest gave scientists and researchers the chance to share their exploration of the submicroscopic world. From July to October 2012, a winner was selected each month as the best in four categories: Around the House, The Natural World, The Human Body and Other Relevant Science. This aphid was the "Around the House" category winner for September/October.

    Vote for the Grand Prize winner (Karin Whitmore / TU Vienna/USTEM) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Geranium flower power

    This image of the pollination of a geranium flower was the August/September winner in the "Natural World" category. (Riccardo Antonelli / Pisa University, Italy) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An itch factory

    The Aedes aegypti mosquito egg. The insect originated in Africa but is now found in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. The tiny mosquito is a force to be reckoned with and can transmit several diseases, including dengue fever. This image was the August/September winner in the "Other Relevant Science" category. (Francisco Rangel / MCTI / INT, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Let there be light!

    The tungsten filament of a household incandescent lamp. Tungsten is used because of its electrical and mechanical properties: strength, ductility and workability. This image was the June/July winner in the "Around the House " category. (Gerald Poirier / Princeton University) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Intestinal fortitude

    The human intestine containing hundreds of different kinds of bacteria. This image was the July/August winner in "The Human Body" category. (Oliver Meckes / Eye of Science, Reutlingen, Germany) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sea 'monster'

    The head of an embryonic zebrafish. This is a model organism currently being used for studies into the genetic causes of neurodegeneration. This image was the September/October winner in "The Natural World" category. (David McCarthy (colored by Annie Cavanagh) / The School of Pharmacy, London) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. War in the trenches

    Here we see the dramatic encounter in the liver of our unsung heroes (immune cells) against an invading parasite (the trypanosome). Each side bears an impressive arsenal of chemical weapons that will define at the end the onset, or not, of Sleeping Sickness. This image was the June/July winner in "The Human Body" category. (Daniel Monteyne, Gilles Vanwalleghem, Etienne Pays, David Pérez-Morga, CMMI / Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A mess of moss

    This image of moss, a host for methane-eating bacteria, was the June/July winner in the "Natural World" category. (Michal Rawski / Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Spidery close-up

    This image shows the texture of spider skin. A hair root and pollen grains are adhered to the skin. This picture was the July/August winner in the "Natural World" category. (Maria Carbajo / Universidad de Extremadura, Badajoz, Spain) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. There's a mouse about

    A mouse kidney fractured to show podocytes, cells that help the kidney filter out substances in blood. This image was the August/September winner in the "Human Body" category. (Matt Sharp / Southampton University Hospital Trust, Purbrook, United Kingdom) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Wake-up call

    This image shows the porous structure of ground coffee. It was the August/September winner in the "Around the House" category. (Maria Carbajo / Universidad de Extremadura, Badajoz, Spain) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Aphid turns a new leaf

    This image of a live aphid on a leaf was the July/August winner in the "Other Relevant Science" category. (Riccardo Antonelli / Pisa University, Italy) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Dastardly disease

    This image shows a Hepatitis B virus core with 3-D reconstruction overlay. The virus causes an infectious inflammatory illness of the liver. It was the September/October winner in the "Human Body" category. (Daniel Beniac / Public Health Agency of Canada, Winnipeg) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Nanotechnology's nook

    Silver clusters deposited by thermal evaporation onto self-assembled polystyrene nano-spheres. This image was the June/July winner in the "Other Relevant Science" category. (Luca Boarino / INRiM, Torino, Italy) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. What's in that corn?

    Starch within the cells of a cracked kernel of corn. This image was the July/August winner in the "Around the House" category. (Ottawa Nicole / Eye of Science, Reutlingen, Germany) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A slice of rock history

    This image is of Cretaceous sedimentary rocks that occur on Snow Hill Island in Antarctica. It allows us to map the texture of polished thin sections of these spectacular rocks. This image was the September/October winner in the "Other Relevant Science" category. (Dr Duncan Pirrie & Dr Gavyn Rollinson / University of Exeter, Penryn, United Kingdom) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments