To jump out of water onto sea ice, emperor penguins must achieve sufficient underwater speed to overcome the influence of gravity when they leave the water. The relevant combination of density and kinematic viscosity of air is much lower than for water. Injection of air into boundary layers (‘air lubrication’) has been used by engineers to speed movement of vehicles (ships, torpedoes) through sea water. Analysis of published and unpublished underwater film leads us to present a hypothesis that free-ranging emperor penguins employ air lubrication in achieving high, probably maximal, underwater speeds (mean ± SD: 5.3 ± 1.01 m s–1), prior to jumps. Here we show evidence that penguins dive to 15 to 20 m with air in their plumage and that this compressed air is released as the birds subsequently ascend whilst maintaining depressed feathers. Fine bubbles emerge continuously from the entire plumage, forming a smooth layer over the body and generating bubbly wakes behind the penguins. In several hours of film of hundreds of penguins, none were seen to swim rapidly upwards without bubbly wakes. Penguins descend and swim horizontally at about 2 m s–1; from simple physical models and calculations presented, we hypothesize that a significant proportion of the enhanced ascent speed is due to air lubrication reducing frictional and form drag, that buoyancy forces alone cannot explain the observed speeds, and that cavitation plays no part in bubble formation.
Bibliographical noteContribution to the Theme Section ‘Evolution and ecology of marine biodiversity’
- Emperor penguins
- Bubbly wakes
- Air lubrication