The Humboldt Penguin (Spheniscus humboldti) Rete Tibiotarsale – A supreme biological heat exchanger

Shaked Kazas, Moran Benelly, Saar Golan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Humans are unable to survive low temperature environments without custom designed clothing and support systems. In contrast, certain penguin species inhabit extremely cold climates without losing substantial energy to self-heating (emperor penguins ambient temperature plummets to as low as −45 °C). Penguins accomplish this task by relying on distinct anatomical, physiological and behavioral adaptations. One such adaptation is a blood vessel heat exchanger called the ‘Rete Tibiotarsale’ – an intermingled network of arteries and veins found in penguins’ legs. The Rete existence results in blood occupying the foot expressing a lower average temperature and thus the penguin loosing less heat to the ground. This study examines the Rete significance for the species thermal endurance. The penguin anatomy (leg and main blood vessels) is reconstructed using data chiefly based on the Humboldt species. The resulting model is thermally analyzed using finite element (COMSOL) with the species environment used as boundary conditions. A human-like blood vessel configuration, scaled to the penguin's dimensions, is used as a control for the study. Results indicate that the Rete existence facilitates upkeep of 25−65% of the species total metabolic energy production as compared with the human-like configuration; thus making the Rete probably crucial for penguin thermal endurance. Here, we quantitatively link for the first time the function and structure of this remarkable physiological phenotype.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-78
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Thermal Biology
StatePublished - Jul 2017


  • Biological heat exchanger
  • Finite elements
  • Physiological adaptation
  • Thermal endurance


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