by Sian Liversage
Many people have seen the animated movie “Happy Feet,” which is about a young Emperor Penguin chick with a terrible singing voice. Well, penguin voices in the real world are far more vital than people may realise. And although the movie is about Emperor Penguins, I want to talk to you about King Penguins and how their voices are key to the survival of their species.
Facts About King Penguins
First, a few facts about these great birds. King Penguins are the second-largest species of penguin (85-95cm tall), they have a white belly, a silver-grey back, a black head and an obvious striking patch of orange-gold feathers on their neck. They live on vegetated margins in regions of the sub-Antarctic and the Falklands.
During breeding season, they can form vast colonies on snow-free land near the sea, allowing them to forage for food all year around. Colonies vary in size, from 30 birds to tens of thousands, and divided between breeders and non-breeders. Despite the pressure for space and resources, there is very little antagonistic behaviour shown between individuals within the colony. Navigation can be challenging in these large densely populated colonies because of the large number of individuals obstructing the locally available cues.
King Penguins Can Navigate Their Way Through a Colony of Thousands of Birds
When it comes to breeding, both parents help with incubating eggs and brooding chicks, which takes around 9 months for the chick to fledge. Chicks learn the calls of their parents within the first month of their lives, something which proves to be essential. As the chick gets older, the chick is left alone for long periods of time in crèches while its parents forage for food, and on their return, parents can recognise their chick’s calls. Despite the chaos of navigating their way through the colony, these penguins can pinpoint the call of their partner or chick amongst thousands of calling individuals, much in the same way people hear their names in a hub of conversation. This phenomenon is known as the “cocktail party” effect.
King Penguin. Thousands of adults and chicks in a large colony. St Andrew Bay, South Georgia, January 2016. Image © Rebecca Bowater by Rebecca Bowater FPSNZ AFIAP www.floraandfauna.co.nz
Despite many studies that are devoted to King Penguin research, there are still many unanswered questions regarding acoustic communication, but in more recent studies, more has been uncovered.
Understanding King Penguin Vocalizations
Researchers conducted playback experiments to truly test their abilities and understand these complex calls1. The experiment involved manipulating different parts of King Penguin’s calls to determine exactly how they recognise each other. Results showed that chicks responded only to the bass frequencies, which travel effectively through a wall of intervening bodies. The first quarter of a second of the parent’s call is enough for the chicks to recognise its parents. The parents will continue to make the call every few seconds. When they are within approximately 11m (36ft) away, the chick will recognise and localise the call. This ability to recognise calls is essential for each breeding pair to successfully raise their chick to adulthood.
Watch the video to hear what King Penguins sound like in the wild. They’re amazingly loud when there are thousands of them together in one colony!
King Penguin Vocalizations May Also Be Different Between Males and Females
Not only has vocalization been discovered as an important signal for individuals, but also for sex recognition. In many penguin colonies it has proven difficult for scientists to determine the sex of the individuals, where females and males are often monomorphic in their external morphology (meaning that they look the same), so there has been limited data on these cues. Another recent study has revealed that King Penguins can be sexed with an accuracy of 100% based on a sex-specific syllable pattern in their vocalizations2. To put this into perspective, a measurement of the bill length of a King Penguin can be sexed with an accuracy of only 79%. These findings may help towards not only understanding how King Penguins choose their mates, but also allows a cost-effective, non-invasive technique for researchers to determine the sex of King Penguins in the field. So future research on King Penguins may have just gotten a whole lot easier.
All in all, given the highly vocal nature of these birds, it is not surprising that chicks learn their parents’ calls within the first month, and adults can be differentiated according to their sex-specific syllable pattern. Based on the current research, it can therefore be concluded that they rely on their vocal signals to recognise each other amongst thousands, therefore making it vital to their survival. Finally, they also present a very interesting system for testing soundscape orientation, an idea that I am sure researchers are already underway in testing.
Did you know about the voices of penguins? Share your thoughts with us, leave us a comment. Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.
Check out some of our other blogs, too:
- Uhlenbroek, C. 2008. Animal life: the definitive visual guide to animals and their behaviours. P431-459
- Hannah J. Kriesell, Thierry Aubin, Víctor Planas-Bielsa, Marine Benoiste, Francesco Bonadonna, Hélène Gachot-Neveu, Yvon Le Maho, Quentin Schull, Benoit Vallas, Sandrine Zahn, Céline Le Bohec. Sex identification in King Penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus through morphological and acoustic cues. Ibis, 2018
- Anna P. Nesterova, Jules Chiffard, Charline Couchoux, Francesco Bonadonna Journal of Experimental Biology 2013 216: 1491-1500