Cool Math 101: Physicists Use Fluid Dynamics To Study Penguin Huddles

Photo by Frank Kazukaitis


What do the members of the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics discuss during their annual meetings?  Math, usually.  Lots of math.  But this week they’ll also be talking about something a little different: penguins.

That’s because mathematician Francois Blanchette will be presenting a paper that examines fluid dynamics in relation to the behavior of penguin huddles.  Blanchette, who was inspired to look into the topic after watching National Geographic’s documentary March of the Penguins, became interested in how groups of penguins move during their efforts to stay warm in Antarctica’s bitterly cold conditions.  So he and his colleagues created a model that mimics how birds exposed to the wind move constantly toward the most sheltered location inside of the group.  Once variables such as the changing direction of wind currents and the differences in the size and hardiness of different birds had been factored in to the equations, the researchers discovered that their shifting model began to form and behave just like a real-life penguin huddle.

With the model in place, Blanchette and his team reviewed the resulting data and found some interesting results.  It turns out that huddle movement caused by the selfish behavior of individual birds (each one jockeying for the warmest position) ends up distributing heat throughout the group and leads to benefits for everyone.  “Even if penguins are only selfish, only trying to find the best spot for themselves and not thinking about their community, there is still equality in the amount of time that each penguin spends exposed to the wind,” Blanchette said.

Similar models could be used to figure out how other groups of organisms, such as bacteria, respond to toxins or stimuli in their environments.   Blanchette also hopes the study will help people develop a new appreciation for his field.  “Nearly everybody seems to love penguins and not enough people love math,” he says. “If we use math to study penguins we could potentially teach more people to love math too!”

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Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.