26 November 2011
Ross Sea, Antarctica
With a leopard seal in pursuit, emperor penguins launch themselves from the water onto sea ice.
Emperor penguins’ body shape and poor climbing ability make it difficult for the birds to haul themselves ashore, especially onto icy or rocky coasts. It is also a moment when they are especially vulnerable to attacks by predators, such as the leopard seal.
But the flightless emperor penguin is capable of becoming airborne, by swimming at up to three times its normal speed, and launching itself from the water to clear the edge of a shoreline. Recent research shows that the penguins do this by releasing air from their feathers, in the form of tiny bubbles. The bubbles act as a lubricant, cutting drag, and enabling the birds to achieve bursts of speeds that would otherwise be impossible.