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Dec 17, 2013 01:58 PM EST

Emperor Penguins Travel in Traffic Jam Formation to Keep Warm and Battle Antarctic Winter Conditions (VIDEO)

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To keep warm in the coldest times of winter, emperor penguins travel together in a tight formation akin to a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.

According to a press release, researchers likened the penguins' formation to a traffic jam because they literally huddle tightly together and move in a stop-and-go manner. This helps them keep warm and battle harsh Antarctic conditions.

For their study, published in the New Journal of Physics, the researchers recreated the formation using a mathematical computer model. They discovered that each penguin only needs two centimeters to move in any direction, which then causes a chain reaction for others to follow.

The researchers described the individual movements like a wave traveling through the group of penguins, very much like the movement of a traffic jam on a crowded highway. In a previous related study, researchers analyzed a time-lapse video that showed the penguins moving every 30 to 60 seconds.

"Our previous study showed how penguins use travelling waves to allow movement in a densely packed huddle, but we had no explanation as to how these waves propagate and how they are triggered," study co-author Daniel Zitterbart, of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, said in the release.

However, the results of the study exposed one key difference from a traffic jam: the penguins can move in any direction and do not have a specific leader. The researchers found that any penguin in the group can influence the direction of travel by just the slightest move.

"We were really surprised that a travelling wave can be triggered by any penguin in a huddle, rather than penguins on the outside trying to push in," said Zitterbart. "We also found it amazing how two waves, if triggered shortly after each other, merged instead of passing one another, making sure the huddle remains compact."

During the Antarctic winter, temperatures can drop as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius and winds can reach 200 km/h. A group of emperor penguins can consist of thousands and they all maintain such close quarters to share body heat in coping with the fierce Antarctic winter.

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