Thursday, April 5, 2012

Flying Penguins!?

Well maybe penguins can fly if you believe this April Fools video produced by the BBC a few years back.  Penguins are better known for flying under water than through air, but penguins do have the ability to get some air.

As seen in the two videos below, being able to pop right out of the water is a major strategy used by penguins to avoid being eaten by predators such as leopard seals and killer whales.  Just recently, scientists have figured out the technique penguins use to get airborne.  The employ a technique that involves wrapping their body in a layer of air bubbles.  This technique is analogous to a technique engineers use to speed ships and torpedoes moving through the water.    

Due to the awkward body shape and poor climbing ability of penguins, its difficult for them to haul their bodies from water onto sea ice or rock shores.  So instead of climbing out of the water, they leap out of the water!  When approaching land or sea ice, the penguins swim down and then swim up and increase their speed as they ascend.  They then burst through the water's surface catching some air before landing on their breast.  The height reached varies among different species.  Smaller Adelie penguins can reach heights of 2-3 meters out of the water while larger Emperor penguins only reach heighs of 20-45 cm.

One visual aspect associated with this behavior is a trail of bubbles left behind penguins as they ascend.  First though of to be air released via the birds lungs was soon found to be coming from the penguin's feathers!  Penguins are able to control their feathers and raise them allowing their feathers to be filled with air before diving underwater.  So then as the penguins descend, the water pressure increases and the decreases the volume of trapped air.  Then, as the penguins ascend the air expands and escapes out of the feathers.  The coat of small bubbles acts as a lubricant which reduces drag and allows penguins to reach swim speeds capable of allowing the bird to go airborne.      

Here's an additional clip from Blue Planet: Frozen Seas. (The discovery of this technique was actually realized by examining this footage.) 


  1. The videos are quite entertaining to watch! I guys penguins really can fly. I thought it was interesting how fast those things can move... Do you know how fast they can slide or waddle on land? I can't imagine that it's very fast. Great post and it was very entertaining!

  2. I really enjoyed the second video. It is so cool how fast the penguins move through the water! Unless that was in a faster speed, those things really do fly through the water, especially when they head to jump onto the land. Did you come across how long the penguins can swim for before it needs a break? But what I found really interesting was that they create bubbles around their body to reach faster speeds and create less drag on their bodies. That is awesome! Great post, as usual.

  3. I really enjoyed this post and the videos. I was quite fond of the second one though. It's really cool that those penguins are able to do such things. What incredible adaptations. I also thought it was quite interesting the note you made that "They employ a technique that involves wrapping their body in a layer of air bubbles. This technique is analogous to a technique engineers use to speed ships and torpedoes moving through the water." I love seeing how humans use techniques from the wild and this is just another great way of showing that.

  4. I loved the second video. Very cool and interesting! I never knew this about penguins. The only interesting fact that I knew about them is that they have one mate for life. I am not sure if that is actually scientifically proven or just a myth. Did you come across anything like that? I think it is very interesting that engineers used the air bubble technique by penguins in ships and torpedoes. Very cool post!