by Catherine Wang
Penguins are known for being incredibly effective swimmers. They have evolved many traits favourable for ocean living, but scientists have discovered that these aquatic aficionados have another clever trick up their sleeves.
Mostly living below the equator, penguins enjoy time both on land and underwater. They rely on the abundance of krill, squid and crabs that inhabit the oceans, and will often spend the majority of their lives in the water, returning ashore only to lay eggs and rear chicks. With firm flippers, webbed feet, and a sleek body with a thick layer of blubber, penguins are well suited to the unforgiving conditions of their habitats. These birds can also swim about 24 kilometres per hour and can dive up to 550 metres.
Among the many species of penguin, the Emperor penguin, or Aptenodytes forsteri, is undoubtedly the most famous. Known residents of Antarctica, they live alongside leopard seals and orcas, their main predators. Seals tend to wait for penguins leaving the water by lurking in the shadows just under the ice. This makes getting back on land dangerous.
It’s Not Rocket Science!
To evade predators, penguins must quickly move onto land while avoiding the jaws of a hungry seal. Since seals are slower than penguins, a swift getaway is all a penguin needs to avoid being caught. Their solution: a high speed ascent out of the water, resulting in the signature “jump“. Although similar to a rocket, this propulsion isn’t powered by fuel.
So what exactly allows these flightless birds to become airborne? In order to achieve their grand leaps, emperor penguins build up momentum in a process called air lubrication. First, penguins dive with air trapped underneath their feathers and subsequently release this compressed air as they shoot upwards. The bubbles also depress the feathers, minimizing friction and drag. All these little things make the penguin more aqua-dynamic. You can even see the trail of bubbles they leave behind!
Seeing these penguins use bubbles to their advantage makes me curious to what other creatures can do. Animals have developed many useful strategies to survive, even some that we’ve only discovered recently. We can take inspiration from nature to enhance our own engineering. Good ideas can come from anywhere, even from grounded birds who manage to defy gravity.
Are you a high school student who dreams of a life in science, technology, engineering, art & design, math, or all of the above?
Science World is now accepting applications for our innovative multi-year after-school program Future Science Leaders. Successful applicants will attend weekly sessions with their science-loving peers, engage with STEAM professionals and complete challenging hands-on activities and projects.