New Clue to How Penguin Chicks Survive Antarctic Winters

A king penguin chick. Photo: Pierre-Axel Monternier

King penguin chicks —those brown fluffballs—don’t have it too easy. Not only must they endure frigid winter weather, but they do so with very little food in their stomachs. They can go for several days without being fed by their parents, who must leave them to forage for food.

French researchers were curious how the chicks survived the sub-Antarctic winters despite these energy challenges. They discovered that the chicks’ mitochondria—the so-called “power houses” of cells—actually become more efficient when the chicks are fasting. Chicks that were fed less food used less oxygen to produce a given amount of the chemical adenosine triphosphate, which is what all animals use to transfer energy within their cells.

The research was presented today at the Society for Experimental Biology’s Annual Main Meeting in Valencia, Spain by Pierre-Axel Monternier, one of the researchers. In a short description of the results, the researchers described the mitochondria of the penguin chicks as using “thrifty mechanisms.” They believe that such mitochondrial changes are “key elements to increase the survival of chicks in such an extreme environment.”

King penguin chicks huddle for warmth. Photo: Pierre-Axel Monternier

Besides this newly discovered adaptation, king penguin chicks have a variety of other ways to stay warm. They huddle in large masses and reduce their movement and metabolic rates. And that thick, brown coat of fur-like feathers that they sport isn’t purely decorative.

While the king penguin population is still strong (about 2.2 million pairs inhabit several sub-Antarctic islands), as with many other birds, climate change is expected to drastically shift their ideal foraging areas.


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