African penguins can’t fly, but they’re great swimmers!

Discover the podcast behind this transcription at Bêtes de Science.

He stands against the blizzard and stares at the raging oceans without anger. A penguin is a funny animal. With its long beak, very short scaly feathers, and plump body standing on two short legs, it seems to be halfway between a bird and a fish. However, it is a flightless bird. But the penguin, deprived of aerial pirouettes, spins in the seas. And there he is like a fish in water: his little flightless wings are quite perfect for swimming; in fact, they even look like fins! This predatory and social animal loves its compatriots and lives in large colonies called penguins. Let’s clear all doubts right away: no, a penguin is not a penguin! The penguin flies, lives in the northern hemisphere and belongs to the alcidae family, while the penguin is a sphenisciform found in the marine regions of the southern hemisphere, Antarctica, New Zealand, Africa or Peru. Oh yes! Contrary to popular belief, penguins don’t just live on ice sheets: some like to bask in sun-drenched fine sand beaches, while others bask on the dark cliffs of the Galapagos Islands. But make no mistake, our little animal is not afraid of the Deep South: in the icy Antarctic desert, we can see its small silhouette – measuring 40 centimeters by a little over a meter – deftly walking. Living conditions in Antarctica are difficult, the environment is hostile. However, there are several species of penguins, including the largest: the famous emperor penguin.

Because the penguin is the ace of survival under the cute little stuffed animal weather. In case of a storm, for example, there is nothing to panic: the whole colony unites! The penguins, standing tight to each other, all warm together: they take turns even in the most difficult positions, so that the birds on the edge of the group, exposed to the wind, can find some warmth. In addition to the solidarity of its mates, the penguin can also rely on its thick fur that protects it from the most extreme cold and allows it to splash around in the iciest of waters. And filling the stomach is very practical! Because our little animal builds its market in the seas: it feeds on fish, squid, molluscs and even krill, a kind of small shrimp. For this, he has an unusual talent: the penguin can really keep all the fish in his stomach for several days without digesting them! This is how parents feed penguin chicks, chicks born in the heart of winter’s harshness. They take turns catching fish before regurgitating all the fish to feed their young. But often the fish run out. Because global warming caused by human activity directly affects the habitat of penguins. Glaciers are receding, the planet’s waters are less populated by fish and krill: penguin populations are declining and facing the threat of extinction.

For a long time, the penguin was less studied than other birds. However, behind its friendly little silhouette with a funny gait hides a brilliant animal whose abilities never cease to amaze scientists. We are going on an incredible journey to find out: Cape Town and the Stony Point reserve await us at the southern tip of Africa, at the very end of this huge continent.

Behavior of African penguins

We are a long way from the pristine expanses and freezing temperatures of Antarctica. Here in Cape Town, South Africa, in the heart of Stony Point Game Reserve, the sky and waters of Betty’s Bay glow the same blue. The weather is fine and you can marvel at the intermingling of flowers, seaweed and weeds on the rocky beaches as the wind relentlessly sweeps them away. And then suddenly, that’s it. It comes swinging over 60 centimeters. Its white body is marked with black spots that create a unique pattern. They appeared at the age of 3-5 months and will remain the same until the end of life. Above his eyes you can see two spots, this time pink in color: these are glands that become pinker and pinker as they warm. It has a little black beak and has an absolutely adorable funny look when it closes its eyes. Cape penguins are truly the cutest of them all. Spheniscus demersus, which is its Latin name, is endemic to the coast of Africa: it is found nowhere else in the world. There are many studies of its abilities: it can recognize its offspring by its cries, filter out sounds in extremely noisy environments to pick out those of interest (an ability we humans are known to exhibit), or even imitate them. companion’s view – and this is very valuable to find prey.

But Alistair McInnes’ team is waiting for us today to solve another mystery. This researcher knows the Cape penguin well, works at the University of Cape Town and is an expert on endangered birds. Today, using good old-fashioned waterproof tape, small cameras are attached to the penguins’ backs, which will allow us to dive into their world. Once the cameras are connected, we will be able to follow them fishing for sardines. This is a great dive. In the camera, sometimes we see the darkness of the depths under the water, and sometimes the light pierces the surface. And that’s normal: the penguin carrying the camera spins around. It starts going down, the picture gets darker and darker, the water becomes cloudy, almost green, then suddenly it rises again. Above it we see what is mobilizing all its energy: the sardine bench. He runs to the bench, and for a moment in the distance we see the other penguins doing the same. They try to squeeze the school of sardines with the surface of the water. Researchers call it uplift. At this stage the school of sardines breaks up and one sardine is left alone far from the others: neither one nor two, our penguin makes short work of it. And the race continues. Then suddenly, just like that, we see sardines struggling in the bright light of the surface. Very soon, we hear the cry of other birds, the ones that can fly: the feast attracts them. Nothing remains for the penguins but to feast.

In this study, researchers analyzed more than 800 minutes of spearfishing video. There are hundreds of scenes like this. So they filmed Cape penguins hunting in groups. This technique requires coordination with your friends, quick reaction in case of change of situation, predicting the movement of the fish. In short, group hunting is a feat of intelligence. You know this better if you listen to the episode about the sardine, which is pretty clever. But that’s not all: the researchers noted that penguins use different strategies to catch fish that are alone, isolated, escaping from the protection of their schools, or even when they are in groups. Another point, and perhaps the most important: when a penguin hunts with its offspring, fishing becomes more productive. Therefore, this cooperation is effective. Incredible, isn’t it? In addition, the researchers also found that when penguin populations were at normal levels, penguins hunted less in groups. Therefore, the decrease in the number of individuals affects their social organization. Sardines and anchovies, which are very valuable to penguins, are directly threatened by overfishing and climate change. And their decline has hit penguin populations hard: since the early 20se in the century they thus decreased by 90%. And so Alistair McInnes’ team concludes this fascinating study by inviting us to protect the African penguin. For this, they insist that we must protect fauna and flora, protect biodiversity, and protect our habitat.

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