Penguin Parents Survive on Catnaps

12/04/2023
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    A chinstrap penguin rests at King George Island, Antarctica. Some penguin parents sleep for only seconds at a time so they can remain vigilant to protect their eggs and chicks. (Won Young Lee via AP)
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    A chinstrap penguin guards its fuzzy gray chicks. (Won Young Lee via AP)
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    Parent chinstrap penguins take short snoozes that can add up to 11 hours a day. (Won Young Lee via AP)
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Imagine working around the clock guarding eggs and chicks from predators. Your work environment is a crowded, noisy colony. How would you survive? Penguin parents nod off thousands of times each day. But they sleep for only about four seconds at a time.

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica take “microsleeps.” The short dozes can add up to around 11 hours per day.

Niels Rattenborg is a German sleep researcher and co-author of a new study on the birds. “These penguins look like drowsy drivers, blinking their eyes open and shut, and they do it 24/7 for several weeks at a time.”

Chinstrap penguins are named for the thin line of black feathers on their faces. The line stretches up their heads. It makes them look like they are wearing black bike helmets.

The birds usually lay their eggs in pebble nests in November. Mated pairs share parenting duties. One parent guards eggs and chicks. The other fishes for family meals.

The adults don’t have many natural predators in the breeding season. But large birds called brown skuas target eggs and chicks. Other greedy adults try to steal pebbles from nests. Parents must stay vigilant.

Biologist Won Young Lee spent long days doing field observations of penguins. He noticed breeding penguins often blink their eyes and apparently nod off. That inspired a sleep study.

Scientists went to King George Island off the coast of Antarctica. They attached sensors to chinstrap penguins to measure brain waves. Data collected on 14 adults over 11 days confirmed their suspicions. The penguins took frequent mini-snoozes.

Researchers don’t know if these brief naps give the same health benefits as longer sleeping periods. The penguins likely sleep longer stretches other times of the year. Scientists also don’t know whether other penguin species use the same method while guarding their young.

Some other animals also have unique sleep patterns. The frigatebird can rest one half of its brain while it flies. Northern elephant seals can nap for 10 or 15 minutes at a time during deep dives.

What are your sleep habits? Studies show most American teenagers average about seven hours of sleep at night, but they need nine or more. A lack of sleep can lead to irritability, being more prone to taking unsafe risks, and having difficulty focusing. (For people, sleep is also necessary for memory retention and physical growth.)

God must have designed chinstrap penguins differently. These penguin parents seem to avoid the negative side effects. Niels Rattenborg observes, “What’s surprising is that they’re able to function OK and successfully raise their young.”