Nobody knew how Emperor penguins flew through the sea until recently.
Marine experts finally solved the enigma of their speed: a penguin’s speed is determined by the stream of bubbles left in its trail as it flies through the ocean.
With their feathered coats, penguins can reduce the amount of water resistance in their environment. Birds can keep air in their feathers, but penguins, because to their tiny filaments, can hold air in their dense layer of feathers very well.
When penguins fluff these small feathers, they create bubbles that cause the water around them to become less dense. According to National Geographic, the bubbles operate as a layer of lubricant to minimize viscosity, similar to competitive swimwear.
Penguins would normally only be able to achieve speeds of four to nine feet per second, but with this unique bubble boost, they can treble, double, or triple those speeds.
When witnessing penguins rush through the water in a BBC program, Roger Hughes, a marine scientist at Bangor University in Wales, had a sense this may be the case. However, he did not believe it would be a shocking revelation.
Hughes reasoned that a friend of his who studies animal movement would be able to explain the significance, or lack thereof, of bubbles in penguin speed. According to National Geographic, that buddy, John Davenport of University College Cork in Ireland, had no idea.
So they engaged mechanical engineer Poul Larsen of Denmark’s Technical University to assist them in analyzing penguin footage, which led to their findings.
The photographs in this article are from National Geographic magazine’s November issue. Penguins rocketing out of the ocean onto ice are featured in an exclusive video and interactive graphic in the digital version.