Gentoo penguin chicks from South Georgia, a remote island halfway between the southeast coast of Argentina and mainland Antarctica, are more likely to hug and huddle than many other penguins, according to new research.
Location and environmental conditions may influence when penguin chicks clutch each other close. The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
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The colder and wetter it gets, the tighter and larger the group hug becomes.
"The huddling behavior appears to be weather dependent, with wet conditions corresponding with more frequent and larger chick aggregations," co-author Caitlin Black of the University of Oxford's Ocean Research and Conservation Group, told Discovery News. "Therefore, colonies located in areas with more wet days, like those in South Georgia, may exhibit this behavior more than other colonies, such as those on the Antarctic Peninsula."
Black and colleagues studied gentoo penguin chicks from four colonies during what is known as the "post-guarding period," for the 2012–2013 breeding season. They did this non-invasively, using time-lapse cameras.
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The period refers to the time after parents leave the chicks in order to go find fish. The chicks are very vulnerable at this growth stage, lacking weatherproof feathers.
The researchers discovered that gentoo chicks hug and huddle more and in a larger group size at northern-most colony that they studied on the island of South Georgia. Chicks at the southern study sites on the Antarctic Peninsula hugged and huddled too, but did so less often and in smaller aggregations.
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"Because the cameras captured an image every hour, it is difficult to tell from this study how long these aggregations last," Black said. "From personal field experience, I would say it is highly dependent on how many chicks are in the aggregation and how the weather is shifting as well as how old the chicks are."
Black continued, "Behaviors, such as chick aggregations, influence whether a chick will survive and therefore may greatly impact the success of a colony."