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That's no way to treat a penguin

April 1, 1997: His name notwithstanding, the male emperor penguin is an oppressed creature, who, while his mate takes a vacation, is obliged to squat on an egg for the duration of the Antarctic winter, subsisting on nothing more than a few pounds of excess body weight and the odd peck of snow. But pathetic though the male emperor’s normal condition may be, it has lately been made much worse by a team of scientists from Strasbourg, intent on discovering why male emperors huddle together during the winter.1

Most people might think they do it for a bit of warmth and company. But not the folks from Strasbourg. "Ah, ha," they must have said, "people may assume that the male emperor hangs out with the guys to reduce heat loss and exchange the odd joke, but the actual reason may be to get away from his spouse."

How to resolve the issue? Elémentaire, mon chére Watson, pen a few of the birds in solitary confinement and see whether they remain in a state of unhenpecked contentment or become cold and depressed. To make it more scientific, inject some of the birds with deuterated water to see how much they sweat.

What the Strasbourg team found was that the solitary birds lost weight faster and got fed up with squatting sooner than birds in the huddled mass. So much for the spouse avoidance theory. But a question remained: why did the penned birds lose weight faster than the fellows in the crowd? With no one to step on their toes, one might think that the isolated birds burnt off extra calories by moving around more, stamping their feet, and flapping their wing stubs, to keep up a good circulation.

Some people would have tested the idea by attaching kinetic sensors to the birds, using radio telemetry and satellite dishes and generally making a big deal of the question. Not our team from Strasbourg, though. "This difference," they said, "cannot be attributed to activity levels, as emperors are almost motionless during the winter."

See, the power of logic: emperors are almost motionless, the penned birds were emperors, therefore the penned birds must have been motionless. Another thing the Strasbourg team found was that "Huddling in emperor penguins is possible because of the absence of territorial behavior in this species." Or, in layman’s terms, emperors don’t mind being together because, well, they don’t mind being together.

These findings must represent an advance. We do not agree, however, that even such an advance as this justifies making a penguin colder and lonelier all winter than he would have been otherwise.

And if anyone disagrees, we suggest that they glug down a bottle of heavy water and then stand alone in a butcher’s freezer for a week. They will find it unpleasant. In fact, they will find it very unpleasant indeed. But if they still won’t admit that even a penguin should not be subjected to such treatment, they should go on standing there for another three months.

(1) Nature 385:304-305, 1997.


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