What Does the Penguin Say?

Penguins are better for known for their cuteness than for their songs. But their squeaks and squawks convey more information than you might think.

Italian scientists recently decoded the language of the African or “jackass” penguin, so named because of its donkey-like brays. By recording 104 days worth of video of a captive colony of the birds in a zoo in Turin, Italy, the researchers were able to identify six different calls used by the penguins to communicate with each other.

As the researchers wrote in the study abstract,

“The African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is a highly social and vocal seabird. However, currently available descriptions of the vocal repertoire of African Penguin are mostly limited to basic descriptions of calls. Here we provide, for the first time, a detailed description of the vocal behaviour of this species by collecting audio and video recordings from a large captive colony.”

The penguins use what is called a “contact call” that basically means “I’m lonely.” It indicates separation, and a desire to be reunited with mates or other group members. The “agonistic” call, on the other hand, indicates the penguin is looking for a fight. African penguins are monogamous, and single birds use an “ecstatic display song”  to let others know they are looking for a mate.

Once they’ve found “the one,” the birds then sing a duet called a “mutual display song.”  Adorable!

The last two calls identified by the research team are made only by chicks.  Young chicks still in the nest use “begging peeps” to indicate that they are hungry. Bigger chicks who have left the nest but still rely on adults for food use a longer, more drawn out “begging moan,” apparently the equivalent of a toddler whine, to indicate hunger.

As head researcher Dr Livio Favaro told the Guardian,

“Vocal communication allows us to understand the many different aspects of the biology of this species. Penguins have less sophisticated vocal mechanisms compared to song birds, but they have very sophisticated mechanisms to encode information in songs.”

Photo credit: “AfricanPenguinNEAq”. Via Wikipedia

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