In the icy waters off Antarctica, gentoo penguins form groups as they hunt for food. They bob in and out of the water before diving below the surface, seemingly directed by a call. Scientists have long struggled to understand just how gentoo penguins communicate, but a group of researchers may have found a way to eavesdrop.
Over the course of two Antarctic summers, scientists at the Korean Polar Research Institute (KOPRI) strapped 26 gentoo penguins with cameras, recording almost 600 call events. In the footage, the penguins moved in unison after one or two short, quick calls. Nearly half of the gatherings occurred within a minute after that call was made.
Researchers believe it’s likely the gentoo penguins get into groups to improve their chances of catching food. Here’s Sarah Gibbens reporting for National Geographic:
Gentoo penguins typically spend most of their days hunting close to shore, but they’re known to swim as far as 16 miles out to sea and dive nearly 655 feet below water to find food (from fish to krill). The study noted that it’s unlikely the calls are used to alert members of the hunting groups to predators (such as leopard seals), as those animals usually congregate near the shore, and the calls were made in open ocean.
Despite this new footage, it’s still unclear what the exact functions of the calls are. Recordings were limited to eight hour segments and the low visibility in the water made it difficult to observe the interactions between penguins. Additionally, the microphone was embedded in the penguins’ feathers, making it difficult to detect how they communicate back-and-forth.
This study does provide new insights into how these birds live, however the research team hopes to collect more footage by placing cameras on multiple penguins in the same group.