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How Scientists Figured Out What African Penguin Calls Mean

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulmannix/552264573/sizes/m/" style="text-decoration: none;">Paul Mannix</a></p>

African penguins have a reputation as loud squawkers, to the point they've earned the nickname "jackass penguins" thanks to their distinctive donkey-ish braying. But these noisy birds are doing more than just yelling, according to Italian scientists who recently deciphered a variety of African penguin vocalizations.

[Favaro et al.]

By comparing audio and video recordings of a bird colony, the researchers were able to come up with a penguin vocabulary, which they outline in a recent PLOS ONE study. There's a total of four basic calls for adults: a brief contact call ("Where'd you go? Guys?"); an angry agonistic call ("Step off, brah."); a mutual display song, a duet uttered in pairs (the penguin equivalent of "You're the One That I Want," probably); and an ecstatic display song let loose by single penguins looking for a mate, which goes like this:

Because African penguins are listed as endangered by the IUCN -- commercial fishing off the southern coast of Africa has depleted the bird's food supply -- understanding how these animals communicate is a critical component of conservation. Using acoustics to monitor penguin calls like these, the study authors say, would be an efficient way to monitor the health of a colony without disturbing the birds.