By Dov Michaeli

We just had the incredible experience of a two-week National Geographic expedition in Antarctica. We constantly asked ourselves: how can we possibly describe what we are seeing here? It is simply indescribable. No human language has invented the words and phrases that could remotely convey the stark beauty of the icebergs in their full awesomeness; or the breathtaking  spectacle of dozens of killer whales congregating all around for…what?  A feeding fest?  A breeding orgy?  An old-fashioned social get-together?  Whatever the reason, the effect on us, humble humans, was overwhelming.

The hundreds of penguin colonies comprising of hundreds and thousands of birds were on a human scale compared with those titans of the Antarctic, much more accessible, both figuratively and physically. We could approach them to within 5 feet (even closer, if not for the strict conservation rules). Inherently independent-thinking, the penguins ignored such rules and approached us humans without fear or trepidation. We spent hours observing their colonies, fascinated by their behavior, trying to “get into their collective head”.

First thoughts: How cute, and human-like.

Why do we love them so much? Is it because they are bipedal, just like we are? Or because they “walk funny”?  Or maybe because their seeming awkwardness provokes a somewhat condescending  smile in us, competent bipedals that we are? It is probably a mixture of these, and more.

Yes, there is more. The more you observe, the more you are struck how family oriented these birds are. The male dutifully walks relatively long distances to pick up a pebble and bring it back to the nest, to create a bed to protect the egg from contact with the frozen ground. He patiently places the pebble in its proper place, and goes back on a long trek to find another pebble. All the while the dutiful female sits on the egg, waiting for her “husband” to return. And when he does, he bows to her and she returns the gesture –how civilized.

 One can spend spellbound hours watching life in the colony. But the more you watch, the more you become aware of its underbelly.

Second thoughts: how human-like are they?

A skua bird is one of their natural enemies . It swoops down into the midst of the colony and eats the first unguarded egg it can find.  but wait: wouldn’t you expect such a large colony (numbering in the hundreds and thousands) to harass and attack the lone intruder? Or at least form a defensive line to protect the egg? To my amazement, the answer is negative: a bird will protect its own egg only, and will not rush to its neighbor’s defense. While the skua plunges head on into the  nest feasting on the egg, the surrounding penguins just stand there, watching. You can almost hear them think: isn’t that unfortunate? Why did the mother leave her nest unprotected? How irresponsible.

 In fact, as unattractive as the pirate skuas are, the cute penguins are themselves accomplished thieves. When a male is out looking for a pebble, his neighbor will come over and steal as many pebbles as he can before the hapless owner returns. And he does it with complete impunity –the poor female is witness to the robbery, she even screams bloody murder, but can do nothing about it. She dares not leave the egg unattended for the briefest of time lest the embryo would freeze, or the skua devour it. But don’t feel sorry for the aggrieved bird; given the first opportunity he will do the same to his neighbor. In an experiment, half a colony was provided with blue pebbles, the other half with red ones. The birds proceeded to steal from each other and within twenty four hours each nest had a bed of pebbles that were 50% blue and 50% red; the very definition of a zero-sum game, and an astonishing degree of wasted energy in an environment where every drop of it is precious.

A colony of penguins is an agglomeration of individuals. There is no common weal, no social structure other than the couple and their egg or chick. There is no hierarchy, no rules of conduct, not even an alpha male to provide a semblance of leadership. In one sense –the ultimate democracy; in another –the bleak prospect of a society of ‘to each his own’ and ‘beggar thy neighbor’. As I was standing there, contemplating these individualistic birds in their non-society colony, I wondered if this is what the ultimate Ayn Rand society would look like. What a depressing thought in the midst of this exhilarating beauty of Nature.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.