Penguins adapt their voices to sound like their friends!

We’ve all had friends who came back from vacation with a French beat in their accent. Or noticed an American accent in our voice while having dinner with a visitor from Texas. One of us (Luigi) recently returned to Italy from the UK with our four year old daughter Emma who spoke little Italian.

The more two people talk to each other, the more similar aspects of our voices can become. This phenomenon, known as social accommodation, is common in humans and is also common in other animals like penguins. The ability of our voices to change in response to our environment is vital to learning new sounds, words and languages. The way Luigi’s young girl’s voice could change quickly and unconsciously made us wonder if other animals did the same. We study the cognitive abilities of a variety of animals, and over the past two years Luigi has worked extensively with African penguins.

It is an ideal animal to study social behavior and the way they communicate with each other. They have a variety of calls they use to communicate, including one that sounds like a donkey. African penguins evolved more than 60 million years ago from all other birds that can learn new calls by observation. Penguins cannot learn new sounds and their vocalizations are genetically determined. However, mounting evidence suggests that the calls of some animals change depending on who they interact with the most. Italian researchers analyzed almost three thousand penguin cries from three different colonies in zoos in Italy.

According to researchers from the University of Bristol, penguins that get along more often have similar “voices”. The penguins’ calls were closer to those of their mates than those of the colony mates three years earlier. This may be due to the special relationship between the partners. And it shows that even animals unable to learn voice can have flexible acoustics.

African penguins use a range of calls in different contexts to communicate with each other, such as when they cannot see the colony. A study has shown that penguins can recognize their mate by sound of voice and sight even when a different penguin’s call has been played. African penguins are on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List and classified as endangered. Their global population has declined by 98% since 1900. Quick action is needed to save them. Although they are excellent swimmers, they wobble so beautifully and often fall on their own feet.

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