Animals

How penguins demonstrate their intelligence

Penguins are master navigators, proving they're as clever as they are cute.Thursday, April 25, 2019

By Liz Langley
African penguins roost on Mercury Island in Namibia. African penguins hunt schools of fish together in groups, maximising their chances to get a quick catch.
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Penguins are certainly charismatic.

Their striking appearance and jaunty waddles spark endless fascination among wildlife watchers and zoo-goers alike. Documentary films like March of the Penguins have captivated audiences around the world.

But Twitter user @CheungEdwin909 wants to know if penguins are as clever as they are cute. Do penguins have the same smarts and good memories as other birds like ravens and crows, he asks? 

Smarts of the Penguins

Intelligence doesn’t just mean cleverness, says David Powell, Curator of Research at the St. Louis Zoo. When assessing intelligence, he says, it’s important to test abilities that are “actually meaningful to the animal,” like hunting and navigation.

Penguin cognition is not quite as well documented as that of parrots or corvids (crows, ravens, and magpies, for example), which have been formally studied for years, says Anne Tieber, Curator of Birds at the St. Louis Zoo. But their intelligence can be compared to corvids in several ways, she says.

For example, penguins hunt cooperatively, just like brown-necked ravens. African penguins, which live around the southern tip of Africa, cooperate to herd fish, driving them towards the surface for easy pickings. It’s a method almost three times more efficient than group-hunting a single fish, according to a study published in Royal Society Open Science.

Coordinated hunting requires “rapid information processing,” says Powell, integrating quickly changing movements and signals from flock mates, and “making a prediction where the fish are going to go and how to then get them.”

Master navigators

Like crows, which can remember particular human faces for years, many penguin species have remarkable memories. (Read about how crows react to the deaths of their comrades.)

Many penguin species, including Adelie and Chinstrap, return to the same nest spot each year and have to be able to find it in colonies where there may be thousands of other birds. This is a feat that combines both memory and navigation, Powell says.

Even at 10 months old, king penguin chicks can find their way back to a square-meter space in a huge colony from a third of a mile away. The birds use visual cues like lakes and hills as well as sounds of the colony to guide themselves home.

King penguins, which are monogamous during mating season, can recognize their partners’ call, even in noisy colonies where hundreds of penguins are searching for their own mates.

The ability to filter out extraneous noise and home in on only what you need to hear is a trait that at least three species of penguins share with humans. This phenomenon of being in a noisy crowd but being able to hear your friend’s voice through the din is known as the “the cocktail party effect.”

The perfect skill for a tuxedo-clad bird.

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