29 January 2012

Do penguins swim and talk at the same time?

Little penguins at Perth Zoo. Photo credit:
Andy Field (Hubmedia). Some rights reserved.
AUSTRALIA - Penguin colonies are notoriously noisy places. The birds seem to have a lot to say to each other as they return to their burrows, defend their territory and maybe just generally chat about their day. But do they say anything to each other when they're swimming underwater?

Dr Miles Parsons from the Centre for Marine Science and Technology is trying to find the answer to this question by investigating the underwater behaviour of little penguins at Perth Zoo.

And the answer could be important: noise levels in Australian water are rising thanks to things like boat engines, underwater construction and seismic testing. If penguins communicate underwater using sound, the increase in other background noise may reduce their ability to do so effectively. 

To find out, earlier in 2011, Dr Parsons placed a hydrophone (underwater microphone) in the penguin enclosure for one month that recorded all noise for nine out of every 15 minutes. He said initial results were not positive, as few sounds could be heard except the keepers calling to the penguins at feeding time.

But this doesn't neccessarily mean that penguins don't talk to each while they swim.

"Penguins in a zoo situation might have little need to communicate underwater as there are no threats and no point in letting others know where feeding grounds are because everything is provided," Dr Parsons told Perth Zoo.

He planned to rerecord the penguins when the birds moved back to Perth Zoo in late December, after a temporary transfer to Melbourne Zoo while their enclosure was renovated. He is hopeful that as the penguins reacquaint themselves with their environment they might have something to talk about.

Do penguins communicate underwater? by Chris Thomas, 23 December 2011, Science Network Western Australia
Singing penguins, 20 September 2011, Perth Zoo

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