Rome  - Penguins have long been studied for the way they behave in colonies, their mating patterns and relationships. But their squawks and calls have only ever been identified at a basic level.

For the first time, researchers in Italy studied 48 African penguins to not only discover they make six distinct calls – they were also able to identify these sounds in context. The researchers, led by Dr Livio Favaro from the University of Turin, collected, categorised, and acoustically analysed hundreds of audio and video vocal recordings.

All were taken from a captive colony of 48 penguins at the Zoom zoo in Torino, Italy. This group was made up of 15 males, 17 females, eight juveniles aged between three and 12 months, and eight nesting chicks.

The results revealed that all the penguins have four essential vocalisations: a contact call emitted by isolated birds, an agonistic call used to signal aggression, an ecstatic display song uttered by single birds during the breeding season, and a mutual display song made by pairs at their nests. The authors also identified two distinct vocalisations interpreted as begging calls by chicks, in the form of a begging ‘peep’, and a begging moan.

‘The African penguin is a highly social and vocal seabird. However, currently available descriptions of the vocal repertoire of African Penguin are mostly limited to basic descriptions of calls,’ said the researchers in the journal PLOS One. ‘Here we provide, for the first time, a detailed description of the vocal behaviour of this species by collecting audio and video recordings from a large captive colony.  ‘Establishing a comprehensive classification of bird vocalisations is important, it allows comparisons between species and individuals, and also contributes to planning effective management and conservation strategies. ‘Indeed, vocalisations have the potential to provide a variety of information about bird sex, age, behavioural state, condition, and relationships with surrounding animals.’