Gentoo Penguins live in the frigid waters of the Atlantic. Only recently have scientists begun to unravel why penguin feathers don’t freeze. An electron microscope revealed tiny pores on the feathers that trap air, making the surface water repellent. This feature, plus a special coating oil from the preen gland, prevents water build-up and delays freezing. Engineers could attempt to apply these principles to prevent icing on plane wings.
Why Penguin Feathers Don’t Freeze
Written by Bob Sundstrom
This is BirdNote.
When we get out of the ocean after a swim, we reach for a towel to dry off and keep from getting cold. But penguins don’t have that luxury — and many are in much colder waters. It’s only recently that scientists have begun to unravel how penguins can live in freezing water without their feathers freezing.
They studied the Gentoo Penguin, which lives in frigid Antarctic waters.
[Gentoo Penguin call, ML 203969891, 0:1-0:05]
Examining the penguins’ feathers with an electron microscope revealed their extraordinary structure at a tiny scale.
Gentoo Penguin feathers have tiny pores that trap air, making the surface water repellent. And the penguins coat their feathers with a special oil from the preen gland near the base of the tail. These two features lead droplets of water to bead up on these water-repellent feathers in tiny spheres, balanced with minimal contact on the feather’s surface. The scientists believe this peculiar shape of water droplets delays freezing.
Gentoo Penguin feathers may even provide a model for human technology. Airplanes face a similar challenge of avoiding ice build-up. But by learning from penguin feathers, engineers could attempt to design a wing surface that naturally repels water.
[Gentoo Penguin call, XC 583140, 0:00-0:04]
For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.
Senior Producer: John Kessler
Content Director: Allison Wilson
Producer: Mark Bramhill
Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone
Managing Producer: Conor Gearin
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Gentoo Penguin ML 203969891 recorded by L. Demongin, and Gentoo Penguin Xeno Canto 583140 recorded by C. Robertson.
BirdNote’s theme was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
© 2021 BirdNote December 2021 Narrator: Michael Stein
ID# penguin-05-2021-12-07 penguin-05