Traveling with a pal is often more fun than going solo. And it may just help baby king penguins live to adulthood. Soon after chicks are born, their parents leave them for weeks at a time to go fishing. With the adults away, the furry young king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus, pictured above) huddle in groups called crèches to keep warm and discourage predators. Hanging out in one spot helps returning parents find their young in a colony of up to 500,000 individuals spread over several kilometers. Bad weather or predators sometimes will force a chick to wander hundreds of meters from its crèche, but the baby birds are canny navigators and almost always find their way back. This homing ability is sharpened when chicks travel in pairs, according to findings reported online this month in Animal Behaviour. In the study, blindfolded pairs of chicks were carried 140 meters away from their crèche and placed in a walled-off arena. Each chick was fitted with a GPS “flipperband” and spun gently to disorient it. After the walls were removed, the chicks were tracked as they waddled home. Chicks from different crèches hung together for short distances before going their separate ways. Chicks from the same crèche tended to pair up for the whole journey home—mimicking each other’s movements, swapping turns leading the way, and taking straighter paths home. In both instances, paired penguins walked faster than solo birds did. Sticking together also helped penguins from the same crèche arrive closer to the exact spot from which they’d been spirited away. The advantage of buddying up, the researchers speculate, may be that birds can use their collective familiarity with environmental cues to travel faster.
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