Think about just how much dirt one tiny little ant could possibly carry between its mandibles. Not much. Even the teeniest of tiny little ant-hills requires many worker ants to construct. Ants co-operate in nearly everything they do, from building the nest to hunting for food. Some species of ants will even form tiny little ant armies, invade neighboring colonies, and steal eggs to raise as slaves!

Ants are by no means the only kind of creature who we see co-operate for the betterment of the group. Let’s go to the one continent on Earth where ants have not established colonies, and find an example of co-operation there. Let’s go way, WAY down South, to Antarctica.

Antarctica from space.

Antarctica from space.

Welcome to the South Pole! Antarctica is the southernmost continent in the world, but there are no white sand beaches or warm waves in this southern getaway. Pack your snowsuit! 98% of Antarctica is covered in thick ice. It’s the coldest place on Earth. No wonder ants have stayed away!

A chilly view from an airplane as it flies over Antarctica.

A chilly view from an airplane window-seat as it flies over Antarctica.

As you can probably imagine, there are very few animals and plants who are adapted to Antarctica’s frigid, dry climate. Still, we don’t have to look very far to see co-operation. One animal in particular has been making news headlines lately. Let’s take a tiny little peak at a very special creature.

Penguins!

Penguins!

Emperor Penguins, to be exact. Their name suits them well. They are the world’s largest penguins, reaching a weight of up to 80 pounds. That’s a whole lotta penguin!

Emperor Penguins are well equipped to deal with the frigid temperatures of the Antarctic. Their waterproof feathers are more dense than any other bird – about 100 feathers per square inch. They also have a layer of thick down between these feathers and their skin. In addition, Emperor Penguins have adapted a way of increasing their metabolism in very low temperatures by moving around or shivering to maintain their core body temperature. All this helps a lot to protect the birds against the cold. But it isn’t always enough.

Just like ants, Emperor Penguins must co-operate with each other in order to survive. Large groups of individuals will huddle together and lean against one another to stay warm. They slowly shuffle themselves around so that everybody gets a turn to enjoy the warmest spot at the centre of the group.

An Emperor penguin colony in winter. Courtesy mtp@mtpa.org.uk.

An Emperor Penguin colony keeping warm. Courtesy mtp@mtpa.org.uk.

That’s a whole WHOLE lot of penguin!

By now you might be wondering what news headlines the Emperor Penguin has been making these days. Well, it isn’t really the Emperor Penguin itself making the headlines, but its poop! That’s right, their poop. Scientists have recently discovered new Emperor Penguin colonies that they never knew existed before, by studying satellite images of Antarctica taken from space. While they can’t see the penguins themselves on the satellite images, they CAN see their poop!! The penguin colonies are so large (sometimes hundreds of individuals huddle together), and they stay in the same spot for so long (up to 8 months a year) that their poop stains the ice a reddish brown that is visible from space.

This is great news for researchers interested in the Emperor Penguin. They are difficult animals to study because of the Antarctic’s harsh weather. Now, scientists can keep track of colonies, their movement, and possible changes to the population.

Of course, the penguins are just working together to stay warm. They have no idea how interested we are in their poop. Do  you suppose they would be embarrassed if they did?!

Embarrassed Emperor Penguin

Aw... shucks.

Stay tuned for more on co-operation in the animal kingdom in upcoming posts!