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Chinstrap Penguins Take More Than 10,000 Naps a Day

They take more naps than most of us take steps.

By Cassidy Ward
Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

In the 2014 animated film Penguins of Madagascar (streaming now on Peacock), a small group of Antarctic flightless birds undertake the greatest adventure in penguin history. Along the way, they have to combat a number of dastardly forces including a vengeful octopus, remaining ever vigilant lest they be taken unawares. Of course, everyone has to sleep sometimes.

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Sleep is a central and only moderately understood part of being human, but we’re far from the only organisms who sleep. The more scientists look, the more they realize that practically everything alive sleeps in one way or another. Researchers have observed sleep in hydras which have no brains, and even in plants, which exhibit circadian rhythms and have periods of reduced activity not unlike sleep. It’s probably not surprising to learn that chinstrap penguins sleep, but you might be surprised to learn that they do it 4 seconds at a time, taking more than 10,000 micro naps every day.

Chinstrap Penguins are the Power Nap Champions of the World

It seems as though everything needs to rest sometimes, but there aren’t any hard and fast rules about how to get that done. Some animals, like us, fall unconscious for a significant portion of each day, taking all or most of our daily sleep in one big chunk. Many animals use this strategy, though the duration of their sleep varies. Giraffes, for instance, get by on only a few hours of sleep a day.

Meanwhile, many animals from birds to fish – including the adorable stars of the upcoming animated family film Migration – sleep with only part of their brains at a time. Ducks literally sleep with one eye open, keeping on the lookout for danger. And now we’ve learned that penguins have their own special sleeping skill to help them survive and hatch their young while still getting their beauty rest.

Black and white nesting Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica).

A recent study published in the journal Science remotely measured the sleeping patterns of chinstrap penguins in the wild. Much of what we know about sleep is from experiments carried out in laboratory settings where the results are likely impacted by the artificial surroundings. If you really want to know what’s going on in penguin dreamland, you have to go where the penguins are. Researchers captured penguins and implanted measuring devices in their brain and neck muscles to monitor their sleep activities in their natural habitat, from a distance using remote electroencephalogram monitoring.

When they crunched the data and compared it to video recordings, they found that nesting penguins engaged in protecting an egg take more than 10,000 micro naps a day. The naps themselves last an average of four seconds but accumulate to more than 11 hours of total sleep every day. The measurements also revealed that like some other birds, penguins sometimes only allow half of their brain to sleep at a time.

These micro naps are similar to the way you might drift off while watching a movie or reading a book late at night, and they can be problematic for people. If you’re trying to cram for a test or piloting a vehicle when you temporarily lose consciousness, a micro nap could lead to disaster. But if you’re a penguin trying to catch some Zs while protecting your egg, micro naps can be a literal life saver.

By sleeping for only a few seconds at a time, thousands of times a day, chinstrap penguins can get the rest they need while avoiding a span of several hours during which they are defenseless. By being sort of half awake and half asleep all the time, they get the benefits of rest without predators getting an easy in. It’s a process which apparently works pretty well for penguins, but it’s unlikely to translate to people. You probably shouldn’t ditch your nightly sleep in favor of a whole bunch of naps just yet.

You should, however, cuddle up on the couch and watch Penguins of Madagascar, streaming now on Peacock.

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