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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Penguin Parents Engage in Microsleeping to Protect Newborns

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WASHINGTON — It’s a challenge for all new parents: getting‍ enough sleep while keeping a close ⁤eye on their newborns. For some penguins, it means thousands of mini-catnaps a day, ⁤researchers discovered.

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica need to guard their eggs and chicks⁤ around-the-clock in crowded, noisy colonies. So they nod off thousands of times⁢ each ‌day⁢ — but⁤ only for about four seconds at a time — to ⁣stay vigilant, ‍the researchers reported Thursday ⁢in the journal Science.

These⁣ short⁣ “microsleeps,” totaling around 11 hours‍ per day, appear to ‍be enough to keep the parents ​going ​for ‌weeks.

“These penguins look ⁣like drowsy drivers, blinking their eyes open and⁢ shut, and they do it ‌24/7 for ⁢several weeks at⁢ a time,”‍ said Niels Rattenborg, a sleep researcher at the Max​ Planck Institute ⁤for Biological‌ Intelligence in Germany ‍and co-author of the new ⁢study.

“What’s surprising is that ⁢they’re able ⁢to function ‌OK and ⁤successfully raise their⁤ young,” ⁣he said.

Chinstrap penguins, named ⁤for the thin line of black facial ⁣feathers resembling a chinstrap, usually lay their eggs in pebble nests in November.‍ As with many other kinds of penguins,⁢ mated pairs ​share parenting duties. One parent‌ tends to ⁣the eggs and⁣ chicks alone while the other goes off fishing for family meals.

While ‌the⁣ adults don’t face ⁣many​ natural ⁢predators in the breeding season, large⁣ birds called brown ‍skuas prey on eggs and small fuzzy gray chicks. Other adults may also​ try ⁤to ‍steal pebbles from ‍nests. So the devoted parents must be always ​on guard.

For the first⁣ time, the scientists tracked the⁣ sleeping ‌behavior ​of chinstrap penguins in⁢ an Antarctic⁣ breeding colony by attaching sensors ‍that measure brain waves. They collected data on 14 adults over 11 days ​on King George Island ‌off ⁤the coast of Antarctica.

The idea for the study ‍was hatched when Won Young Lee, a biologist at the Korean ⁤Polar Research Institute, noticed breeding penguins ​frequently blinking their eyes ⁣and apparently nodding⁤ off during his ⁣long days ⁤of field⁢ observations. But the team needed to ⁢record brain waves to ‍confirm they‍ were ⁢sleeping.

“For these ​penguins, microsleeps ​have some restorative functions — if not, they ‌could not​ endure,” he said.

The researchers did‌ not collect sleep data ⁢outside⁣ the breeding ⁣season, but⁤ they hypothesize⁣ that the ‍penguins may sleep in longer intervals at other ​times of ‌the year.

“We don’t know yet if‍ the⁤ benefits of microsleep are the⁣ same‌ as for long consolidated sleep,” said Paul-Antoine‌ Libourel, a co-author and sleep researcher at ⁤the⁣ Neuroscience Research Center of Lyon in France. ⁤They ‌also ⁣don’t ​know if other penguin species⁤ sleep in a similar fragmented fashion.

Scientists have ⁢documented a few ​other animals with special sleeping adaptions. While flying, frigatebirds​ can sleep one⁢ half⁢ of their brain at a time, and northern elephant ​seals can nap for 10⁢ or 15 minutes at a time during deep dives,⁤ for example.

But chinstrap penguin ⁣microsleeps ​appear to be a new extreme, researchers ⁤say.

“Penguins live in a ⁢high-stress environment. They breed in​ crowded colonies,​ and all their predators are‌ there at the same time,” said⁢ Daniel Paranhos Zitterbart, who‍ studies penguins at ⁣the Woods Hole ​Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and was not involved in ⁤the study.

Microsleeping is ​”an amazing adaptation” ‌to ‍enable near ‍constant‌ vigilance, he said.

The‍ Associated Press Health and Science Department‍ receives support from the Howard Hughes ⁣Medical Institute’s Science and ⁤Educational Media Group. The AP is ⁤solely responsible for all content.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Disagree Penguins should find a more effective way to protect their newborns. Microsleeping seems risky and insufficient. #PenguinParenting

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