Emperor Penguins Underwater for Nearly 20 Minutes

Written by on August 8, 2008 in Marine Life
(This article was originally published on OceanLines on August 8, 2008.)
Emperor penguins returning from a dive

Emperor penguins returning from a dive

A new study from Scripps Institution of Oceanography has uncovered new information on the emperor penguin and its ability to perform deep dives and remain underwater for such a long period of time. The study was led by Jessica Meir, a graduate student researcher at Scripps, along with Paul Ponganis, research physiologist of the Scripps Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine.  The study was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, a Los Angeles Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Fellowship, and the Scripps Education Department.

The study focused on the slowing of the penguins’ heart rate, an ability that the emperor penguins have adapted in order to stay underwater for such long periods of time.  They used a digital electrocardiogram recorder to obtain a complete heart beat profile throughout the entire dive.  It revealed some incredible lows of only six beats per minute for five straight minutes while under water and record breaking highs of up to 256 beats per minute when the penguin reached the surface after an 18 minute dive.

Researcher preparing the dive hole for the penguins

Researcher preparing the dive hole for the penguins

The emperor penguins really are extraordinary birds. Here are some interesting facts:

  • they live in a climate that can experience almost three full months of darkness and temperatures of -34 degrees celsius
  • when breeding season arrives the penguins gain an extra 30-50 percent of their body mass in five weeks
  • one of the deepest dives ever recorded was 265 meters (870ft)
  • they have a high concentration of myoglobin which is a protein in muscles that stores oxygen
  • having oxygen stored in their muscles means that they do not need it distributed throughout the body while diving, allowing them to stay under without needing to breathe
  • one of the longest dives on record was 22 minutes

Studying these adaptations of penguins may prove to be beneficial to humans later on. As Meir tells us, humans experience low oxygen levels when they have strokes or heart attacks. She says “If we can figure out how these animals can tolerate these extremely low levels, that might help us figure out how to prevent human tissues from being damaged during low levels of oxygen.” She also believes that understanding the penguins diving is even more important today. “To understand what’s really going on in the Antarctic ecosystem, I think understanding more about the emperor penguin’s diving ability is crucial, particularly in the face of global climate change.”

Colony of emperor penguins

Colony of emperor penguins

Copyright ©  2008 by OceanLines

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