07 February 2016

Penguin chicks huddle for warmth and protection

ANTARCTICA - Location and environmental conditions may influence when gentoo chicks huddle in cold, wet Antarctic conditions, according to a study published this month in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Caitlin Black from the University of Oxford and colleagues.

Many penguin species huddle together and form creches (aggregations) to conserve heat, gain protection and for other purposes. Although scientists have observed gentoo penguin chicks huddling during the post-guarding period, a period when the parents leave the chicks daily to go find food, these creches have never been studied over a large spatial range in the Antarctic.

The authors of this study looked at the adaptive benefit of creches by using time-lapse cameras to observe gentoo penguin huddling behaviour during the post-guarding period across four study sites at different latitudes.

The authors found that gentoo chick creches help individual chicks save energy during wet, cold conditions.

However, they also found significant differences in huddling behaviour between colonies. Chicks form creches more often and in a larger size at the study site on the island of South Georgia, the northern-most colony studied, than at the southern study sites on the Antarctic Peninsula, suggesting this behaviour may be colony specific.

Since not all post-guarding periods occurred during the same time period at each study site, the differences in environmental conditions and post-guard period timing may have also played a role.

Caitlin Black noted, "Behaviors, such as chick aggregations, influence whether a chick will survive and therefore may greatly impact the success of a colony.

"The results show why we must evaluate behaviors at multiple [seabird colony] locations, as these behaviors are often colony specific and cannot be generalized [for one species] from one year at one location."

Journal citation
Black C, Collen B, Johnston D, Hart T (2016) Why huddle? Ecological drivers of chick aggregations in gentoo penguins, Pygoscelis papua, across latitudes. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0145676. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0145676

Penguin chicks huddle up for heat, protection [press release], PLOS, 3 February 2016, EurekAlert!

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