penguin feet -- 6/13/24

Today's encore selection -- from Eureka! with an introduction by Jim Al-Khalili. Why don’t penguins’ feet freeze?
"Penguins, like other birds that live in a cold climate, have adap­tations to avoid losing too much heat and to preserve a central body temperature of about 40 °C. The feet pose particular problems since they cannot be covered with insulation in the form of feathers or blubber, yet have a big surface area (similar considerations apply to cold-climate mammals such as polar bears).

"Two mechanisms are at work. First, the penguin can control the rate of blood flow to the feet by varying the diameter of arterial vessels supplying the blood. In cold conditions the flow is reduced, when it is warm the flow increases. Humans can do this too, which is why our hands and feet become white when we are cold and pink when warm. Control is very sophisticated and involves the hypo­thalamus and various nervous and hormonal systems.

Emperor penguin

"However, penguins also have 'counter-current heat exchangers' at the top of the legs. Arteries supplying warm blood to the feet break up into many small vessels that are closely allied to similar numbers of venous vessels bringing cold blood back from the feet. Heat flows from the warm blood to the cold blood, so little of it is carried down the feet.

"In the winter, penguin feet are held a degree or two above freezing to minimise heat loss, whilst avoiding frostbite. Ducks and geese have similar arrangements in their feet, but if they are held indoors for weeks in warm conditions, and then released onto snow and ice, their feet may freeze to the ground, because their physiology has adapted to the warmth and this causes the blood flow to feet to be virtually cut off and their foot temperature falls below freezing." 



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