Pierre the Penguin: Teaching About Heat and Insulation Through Adaptations

Meet Pierre

A recent news article profiled Pierre, a 25-year-old African penguin at the Academy of Sciences. Biologists became concerned when Pierre, who was going bald, refused to swim in the penguin tank and shivered on the sidelines instead. Unlike polar bears, seals, and other marine mammals, penguins do not have an insulating layer of blubber but instead rely on their waterproof feathers for temperature regulation. Without some of his feathers, Pierre was one chilly little penguin.

After trying a heat lamp, a senior aquatic biologist wondered if a wetsuit could help Pierre enjoy the water as it does for humans. A local dive supply shop agreed to create a special Velcro-fastening suit just for Pierre. After several fittings, Pierre was given his suit – and scientists noticed a difference. In six weeks he gained weight, grown back some feathers, and became more active. Biologists aren’t sure whether the suit allowed for the regrowth, but agree that it did make him more comfortable during that period of time. They are weaning Pierre off the wet suit as his feathers grow back.

Connecting Pierre’s Story to Science Class

The lighthearted story of Pierre is attention-getting for students and teachers, but can also be used as a springboard for serious science lessons. First, the story can be used to introduce the variety of penguin species – 17 in all – found across the Southern Hemisphere. An African (“jackass”) penguin, Pierre’s species is accustomed to the temperate climate of Southern Africa, not the cold waters and ice of Antarctica. In our article Penguins Only in Antarctica? It’s Not So Black and White, we discussed the variety of penguin species and provided links to interdisciplinary units that introduce penguin species and their adaptations to students.

This story also provides an opportunity to explore the properties of heat transfer and insulation at an elementary level: animals’ adaptations to their environments. These types of activities and lessons target the National Science Education Standards Physical Science content standard for K-4 and 5-8 as well as the Life Science content standard for K-4 and 5-8.(Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.)

Students should begin by learning about the structure of bird feathers, especially down feathers. Penguin down feathers have a velcro-like structure that allows them to stick together, creating an effective insulator. Students can examine commercially available down feathers with a hand lends to observe the barbs and barbules that create this velcro-like structure. They can also compare and contrast Velcro and down feathers using a microscope.Next, students can investigate the insulating property of down feathers. Older students could compare and contrast the insulating properties of blubber (found in marine mammals) and feathers (for birds such as penguins) and discuss how two different features serve a similar purpose in these groups of animals.

Finally, older students can discuss this story and how humans (and technology) impact animals in the lab and in nature. The biologists in this story said that the other penguins were accepting of Pierre and his wetsuit, but would that be different in the wild? Could there have been negative consquences from wearing the wetsuit? What are the responsibilities of scientists in observing and caring for animals in the lab? Should they treat these animals differently than those in the wild?

Integrating Literacy

Pierre’s story also provides opportunities for literacy integration – from researching penguin species to writing expository articles. We’ve listed a few suggestions to be used in conjunction with the science lessons suggested above.

Create a penguin book to record facts and draw pictures.

Research a penguin species and present information as a report, abc book, or presentation.

Read informational text about penguins or their feathers.

Write an expository article answering the question How do penguins stay warm?

Write a persuasive letter explaining scientists’ responsibility for animals in the lab and in nature.

Sharing high quality trade books and children’s literature is also a wonderful way to incorporate literacy. We’ve suggested a few of our favorites here. Your media specialist or local librarian may be able to suggest other titles, or you may have your own favorites.

The Emperor Lays an Egg. Brenda Z. Guiberson. 2001. Picture book. Recommended ages: Grades K-2.

Penguins and Their Chicks. Margaret Hall. 2004. Nonfiction book. Recommended ages: Grades K-2.

A Mother’s Journey. Sandra Markle. 2005. Picture book. Recommended ages: Grades K-5.

Penguins. Seymour Simon. 2007. Nonfiction book. Recommended ages: Grades 3-5.

Do you have a favorite penguin resource, lesson plan, or book that you’d like to share? Have you used Pierre’s story as a springboard for science? Please post a comment to this article with suggestions, tips, or comments.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright August 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is
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