How To Weigh 25,000 Penguins (Simultaneously) With Apologies to Dr. Seuss

I guess the first question that pops into my mind at this point is: why would you want to weigh 25,000 penguins? This question is closely followed by a second question which is: what could any of this possibly have to do with the beloved author of books for children of all sizes, Dr. Seuss? Last but not least: do I have even the slightest idea where this column is headed?

The answers to all of these questions shall now be revealed!

In the face of growing concern about small variations in the Earth’s climate, lots of scientists and politicians have also become worried about the health of all kinds of critters including penguins, especially in continents such as Antarctica but also the tiny, recently-discovered continent of CHAZ.

Now a really great way to determine the health of any critter is to weigh it. Say you wanted to determine the health of a waddle of penguins. Just repeat after me:

“You wanted to determine the health of a waddle of penguins.”

In theory you could just weigh the whole waddle. Ditto if you wanted to assess the health of a sneak of weasels, a parliament of owls, a bank of Komodo Dragons, a bed of eels, or a wisdom of wombats. You could just weigh the sneak, parliament, bank, bed or wisdom.

In case you were wondering, a wombat is a dim-witted but very compact, blocky Australian marsupial which excretes compact, blocky turds.

Australian wombat and its cuboidally-shaped poo

I know. I know. You think I’m totally bullshitting you with all these bogus names for animal groups and references to geometrically-shaped caca.

I swear on the grave of Charles Darwin that I totally am NOT bullshitting you by throwing out these odd names for animal groups. I got them from this site:

And I also swear on all the books that Australian author Liane Moriarty has written, that wombats totally DO poop cubes. No one knows why.

But all that aside, weighing a large group of pretty much any kind of wild critter is easier said than done due to their tendencies to be: a) skittish b) highly mobile c) possibly deadly d) underwater e) all of the above. And sorry, but the following short interchange just more or less popped into my head this very second. I couldn’t stop it.

You (on phone): Hello, is this the Flores branch of the Bank of Komodo Dragons?

Receptionist: Yes it is.

You: Is that screaming I hear in the background?

Receptionist: Yes it is.

You: I’d like to speak to the manager please.

Receptionist: I’m sorry, the manager is currently being eaten alive by a bank of Komodo Dragons.

You: I must say! This is an oddly self-referential conversation.

Receptionist: I quite agree!

You: Too bad they’re not eating a politician.

Receptionist: I second that motion.

Bank of Komodo Dragons devouring a scientist who tried to weigh them. Or maybe it’s a political candidate who attempted to solicit votes.

OK, where was I? Yes. Penguins. Say we want to weigh thousands of penguins. (Do NOT repeat that last sentence out loud even though I know you totally thought about doing it.)

Turns out that when it’s warm, say -35 degrees F (don’t do it) , the waddles of Antarctic Emperor Penguins tend to be loosely dispersed, but as it starts to get a bit cold, the penguins waddle around a lot more and their waddles start to change shape and become more compact. This is called huddling.

Basically, the penguins that find themselves directly in the wind at the edge of a waddle will then waddle around the edges of the waddle until they find a less windy spot and nose into it. Or beak into it, I guess. This displaces penguins from the interior of the waddle, where it’s around 100 degrees F. Some of those interior penguins are actually fanning themselves ineffectually with their small T-Rex-like upper appendages. Those displaced penguins stop fanning themselves and eventually migrate to the windward edge of the waddle, where they decide that THAT wasn’t such a great idea and proceed to waddle around to the back of the waddle. It’s sort of like musical chairs but with no chairs and no music. Just wind. And maybe leopard seals.

Eventually, if the waddling goes on long enough, the waddle will become a dense, stable huddle which looks sort of looks like a side view of the booster for a Saturn V rocket. (See iteration 110 in the computer model output). Or maybe a top view of an unusual type of tailless and legless turtle slowly making its way to the right side of the page? Hard to say.

Computer model output

So to recapitulate, the loosely-dispersed waddle eventually morphs into a dense huddle which I like to call a duddle. Sort of a waddle-huddle-duddle-muddle. It turns out that the temperature at which waddling converts a loose waddle into a dense duddle may reflect the average fat content, energy reserves and general health of the penguins in the waddle! So lean, hungry penguins will huddle at a warmer temperature than pudgy, fish-stuffed penguins. Who knew?

Apparently a team of scientists led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution physicist Daniel Zitterbart knew. Via remotely-controlled cameras they have been photographing Antarctic Emperor penguin waddles morphing into duddles, monitoring the temperatures at which this occurs and then making pronouncements about the health of the members of the waddles.

Zitterbart says: “Instead of weighing each individual penguin, it’s as if we’re weighing 25,000 penguins at the same time. But let me tell you. It’s a darned good thing we’re doing this remotely because 25,000 penguins make more noise than a troop of baboons, led by Bernie Saunders, being eaten alive by Komodo Dragons.” (I may have made the last part up.)

Well, all this talk about waddles, huddles and duddles is giving me a headache. In fact it’s beginning to sound like a bunch of twaddle. I think I’ll just leave you with the closing lines from The Fox in Socks by Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss):

“…When a fox is in the bottle where the tweetle beetles battle with their paddles in a puddle on a noodle-eating poodle, THIS is what they call… …a tweetle beetle noodle poodle bottled paddled muddled duddled fuddled wuddled fox in socks, sir! Fox in socks, our game is done, sir. Thank you for a lot of fun, sir.”

And thank you Dr. Seuss. I couldn’t have said it better.

Bonus Question: How many words in this post begin with the letter “w”? (Not including any w’s in this sentence.)


Dave Barry fan and Medical Director at Rocky Mountain Analytical