Huddling Penguins and Traffic Jams

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Male emperor penguins have the unenviable task of incubating their eggs in temperatures as cold as -50 deg Celsius and winds of up to 200 km/h. To stay warm, the penguins form huddles of up to thousands of individuals. Observations in the wild show that these huddles move in a stop-and-go fashion, with changes propagating through the penguins like waves. Researchers adapted a model used for heavy traffic flow to describe the penguins’ motion. They found that motions like those found in observed penguin huddles could be initiated by slight movements of any penguin in the model huddle, regardless of its position; in other words, the huddle has no leader. They also found that the wave that travels through the penguins can align the huddle to uniform density or help two huddles merge. To learn more, check out the researchers’ video or their paper. (Video credit: D. Zitterbart et al./New Scientist; via J. Ouellette)

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