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Chinstrap penguins nod off more than 10,000 times per day in seconds-long 'microsleeps,' study finds

A colony of chinstrap penguins is seen on King George Island in Antarctica. (Paul-Antoine Libourel)
A colony of chinstrap penguins is seen on King George Island in Antarctica. (Paul-Antoine Libourel)
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Ever find yourself nodding off for a second while at work or school after not getting enough sleep the night before? You may have something in common with chinstrap penguins.

A new study has documented the peculiar sleeping habits of this species of penguin. Instead of taking one long continuous period of sleep, chinstrap penguins prefer to sleep in seconds-long intervals, more than 10,000 times a day.

The peer-reviewed findings are set to be published in the journal Science on Dec. 1. An international team of researchers observed the sleeping patterns of a colony of chinstrap penguins on King George Island off the coast of Antarctica using remote sensors that measured the penguins' brain waves and other non-invasive devices.

In chinstrap penguin colonies, a parent will often be required to guard the nest alone while the other parent is away in search of food, sometimes days at a time.

"As one penguin parent must therefore guard the eggs or small chicks continuously while its partner is away on foraging trips lasting several days, they face the challenge of needing to sleep while protecting their offspring. In addition, they also have to effectively defend their nest site from intruding penguins," the authors wrote.

Taking "microsleeps" allows the parent to continuously guard its nest against predators and aggression from other penguins. On average, these microsleeps only lasted around four seconds. However, when added up, the researchers say the penguins accumulated between 11.5 to 12 hours of sleep per day.

In humans, microsleeps are typically the result of poor sleep during the night and can be dangerous while driving or operating heavy machinery. It remains unclear whether microsleeps can perform restorative functions for the brain, or if these are simply failed attempts to sleep.

While this study didn't measure the restorative effects of microsleeps, if any, the researchers say the breeding success of these penguins suggests that microsleeps can perform some incremental benefits for the body.

"If microsleeps are more than failed attempts to initiate sleep and do fulfill sleep functions, then relying on microsleeps might be an adaptive strategy under ecological circumstances that require constant vigilance," the authors wrote.

"The investment in microsleeps by successfully breeding penguins suggests that the benefits of sleep can accrue incrementally."

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