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Do penguins sing under water?

News story

A Curtin University academic is working with Perth Zoo to find out how penguins communicate under water.

Centre for Marine Science and Technology Research Fellow Miles Parsons says penguins can be noisy on land.

However, he says that research into what sounds, if any, the streamlined creatures make under water has been largely overlooked.

Dr Parsons’ project aims to shed light on how penguins communicate under water and how environmental noise may affect their sound production and reception.

“The information will assist with better management of the penguins’ ocean environment as well as educating the scientific and general community regarding underwater communication in penguins,” he says.

Many species of marine fauna – including whales – communicate under water.

Little research has been conducted into the underwater warblings of penguins, but one study discovered that Macaroni Penguins make sounds.

To extend the range of knowledge in the field, Dr Parsons placed a large waterproof microphone in the bottom of the zoo’s penguin pool.

With 12 penguins and very few environmental sounds to worry about, the zoo seemed a perfect place for the research.

The microphone was left in place for a month, recording sounds at frequencies of up to 10,000 Hz for nine minutes of every 15-minute period.

At the end of the 30 days, Dr Parsons removed the microphone and started sifting through data and recordings to find what he needed.

“There was a lot to go through and unfortunately initial findings were not positive,” he says.

“In the penguin enclosure there is the sound of aeration which could mask quiet penguin calls.

“The few sounds we did hear were mostly keepers calling out to the penguins to come for a feed.”

However, Dr Parsons says researchers still have some way to go before submarine penguin singing can be ruled in or out of the realms of possibility.

He says anecdotal evidence suggests the Little Penguins may indeed call in the wild.

Dr Parsons reasons that penguins in zoos may have little need to communicate under water because there are no threats and no point in letting others know where feeding grounds are.

Perth Zoo’s penguin and Australian wetlands exhibits are closed for renovations.

The zoo’s penguin colony has been transferred to Melbourne Zoo for the duration of the works and will return in December when their exhibit is due to reopen.

“What I am hoping to do is rerecord when the penguins return from Melbourne after the Australian Wetlands and Penguin exhibit has been refurbished and [they] reacquaint themselves with their environment,” Dr Parsons says.

“Then we might hear some calling.”


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