By Scott A. Rowan
Do penguins have the most feathers on the planet?
In 2015 one of the most widespread misconceptions about penguins was finally proven to be a lie. For generations, one “fact” that appeared in books and papers about penguins was that they had the densest feathers of any bird. It simply isn’t true.
University of California-Irvine researchers in Antarctica decided to find out if the old “facts” were true or not. At the heart of the debate was the idea that penguins have incredibly dense feathers, ranging from 11 to 46 feathers per square centimeter. The researchers had kept dead emperor penguins gathered from 2001 to 2005, so there were plenty of individuals to study. Their report in the October 2015 Proceeding of the Royal Society B completely changed how the scientific world looks at penguin feather density.
Led by Cassondra Wilson, the researchers discovered that penguins had only about nine feathers per square centimeter, far from the 11 to 46 uncited reports had claimed for decades.
They were also able to put to rest another fallacy: Emperor Penguins were believed to have the highest density of feathers of any bird on the planet. Again, not true. Wilson and her colleagues found that white-throated dipper, a tiny Eurasian bird that lives in cold mountains, has as much as six times the density of feathers as the Emperor Penguin.
The detailed examination of Emperor Penguin feathers revealed another surprise: there are four types of feathers on a penguin’s body.
At the base of the large feathers that are easy to see are three smaller, supporting feathers that work together to insulate the body.
Afterfeather: small, downy plumes that attach to the main feather that help insulate against the cold water.
Plumules: small, soft feather that attaches directly to the penguin’s skin. Wilson’s study found there were four times as many plumules as afterfeathers, which was a surprise to the experts.
Filoplumes: small, narrow shaft barely a centimeter long that sits at the base of the feather and detects when a feather has become displaced and needs to be preened.
Before the 2015 study, filoplumes were only thought to exist on birds that fly, not penguins, emus, and ostriches. However, Wilson’s study proved that penguins need to preen their feathers to prevent freezing the same way that flying birds need to preen their feathers to maintain proper flight stability.
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