Penguins talk to each other underwater

This is the first direct evidence that penguins communicate vocally while below the surface
penguins talk King penguins were one of three species recorded in the new study. (© Ondřej Prosický -

Birds love to 'talk'. They chirp and chitter. They squawk and squeak. They laugh and sing and chick-a-dee-dee-dee!

Penguins are no exception, bringing a cacophony of cheeps and radio static-sounding pulses to the otherwise desolate and quiet continent of Antarctica.

But if the question of Do penguins talk? was already settled, scientists had another question that puzzled them: Do penguins talk underwater?

Thanks to new research, scientists believe they have the answer. And the answer is YES!

Listening in

Scientists long believed that penguins made underwater vocalizations, or sounds with their mouths and throat. After all, they're already so noisy on land. And we've known for ages about the songs and calls of whales and dolphins. Why not penguins?

But sounds travel differently underwater, and what works on land isn't really seaworthy. (For proof, try talking to a friend underwater and see how that goes!) Scientists needed to have direct evidence that penguins do talk while swimming underwater. So a team of researchers at the Marine Apex Predator Research Unit at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa set to work.

They set up tiny cameras and microphones on king, macaroni, and gentoo penguins and recorded the results.

Dive! Dive! Chat!

Embed from Getty Images

The video below will give you a real sense of just how dark it is where the penguins hunt. It is a place where sounds could really come in handy! (Getty Embed)

The video below is of a full feeding dive of a king penguin. And it's a real trip! It's also not exactly a big talk-a-thon, so before you watch it, let us set it up.

The video starts on the surface. Then our bird dives! You'll immediately hear sounds that are a lot like breathing, but these aren't vocalizations — this is just the bird pumping its wings in the water as it dives.

Things slowly go from a cool blue to pitch black as the bird dives and dives in search of its deep sea prey. Then around 2:05, it begins to hunt. You won't see much, though around 2:43, 2:55, and 3:00 you'll catch brief glimpses of blue again and the shapes of fish!

And at 2:30, 3:02, and 3:03, you'll hear the vocalization. Listen for a short, sharp swiping sound.

What does it mean?

That's the million dollar question, isn't it?

So far, scientists have recorded over 200 vocalizations from the three species. They can certainly tell that the sound is connected to feeding. But as for what it means and how or whether the species use it to communicate, that's a bigger question that needs answering.

Perhaps penguins are signalling to each other that, Hey, there's food here! Or maybe they're just saying something like, Darn it! I almost got that one! or Yummy! Another fresh fish for Jimmy!

Whatever the messages are, we're excited to see where this research goes. We're always up for some good conversation!

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