Human Journey

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!”

For all the latest science news, check out our twice-weekly news rundown, Earth Current.

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.
  • shirley

    for me it is ture that math is very difficult and boring.however,if our teacher can teach my math so interesting.l think my math will have a great progress

  • Math Help

    Hey very nice site!! Guy .. Excellent .. Wonderful .. I’ll bookmark your blog and take the feeds additionally?I am happy to find so many helpful information right here within the submit, we want develop more techniques on this regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . .

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media