Humans are able to pick out friends’ voices at crowded parties. Science calls this ability the “Cocktail Party Effect”. Penguins can do it too. By Marie-Louise Wahle
Penguins can do much more than just look cute – they also have amazing cognitive abilities. Penguins live in colonies with up to a million animals and in order to find the partner, the offspring and the nest in this crowd, the animals naturally had to develop a strategy. They use their voice to do this.
Individual sounds combined with keen hearing allow penguins to recognize their family within the flock of other, similar-looking members of the same species. Penguins don’t have auricles, but that doesn’t limit their ability to hear. Penguin voices are made up of calls and sound sequences that vary from colony to colony. Within the colony, the sequence and the sound of the call sequence can also be used to differentiate between males and females. Individual call sequences enable the penguin to recognize its partner by the voice – which is unique for each animal.
Penguins also communicate underwater
In order for the voice recognition to work, the calls of the other colony members must also be hidden. This selective hearing is referred to as the “cocktail party effect” – based on the phenomenon among people, for example being able to hear one’s own friends out of the crowd at a party. Humans can only recognize these different calls with the help of sonagrams and computers. And the chicks also have to memorize the voice of their parents before they can recognize them.
Adélie penguins, for example, also communicate with their body language: by erecting their head feathers, they signal distress. If they raise their crest and stare sideways with their eyes rolled down, the animals feel threatened.
To signal their readiness to mate, the penguin raises its beak to the sky, spreads its fins and makes cracking noises. It is also remarkable that penguins also communicate under water. These squeaking sounds are thought to be related to food intake, but for what purpose exactly remains a mystery to researchers. This and other puzzles about the multi-faceted abilities of penguins will hopefully be solved little by little.
Sources: “National Geographic” / www.pinguine.net / www.vogelundnatur.de