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Spying on penguins is as simple as taping a camera to their backs

Smile, you’re on penguin-cam

Photo: A gentoo parent with cameras on its back and head.

By capturing penguins and strapping them with video cameras, scientists created their own “penguin cam” to learn more about how birds communicate in the open ocean.

Gentoo penguins live in the islands around Antarctica and spend a lot of time in the water foraging for food, which makes them hard to access. So, scientists randomly captured 26 penguins and used waterproof tape to stick cameras on their heads and backs. Then the birds were sent back out to sea for two breeding seasons. The results were published this week in the journal Scientific Reports and give us more insight into the life of these animals.

A gentoo penguin with a camera on its head
Photo: Won Young Lee

The scientists ended up recording 598 calls from 10 penguins. Penguins make a variety of very different calls, some with great names. “Begging moan,” for instance, is the term for the sound hungry chicks make when they’re asking for food. In this case, the scientists were interested in “offshore calls,” or the sounds penguins make when they’re out swimming in the water.

It turns out these calls are pretty effective for getting the birds to come together. Almost half the time, the penguins formed groups within a minute after an offshore call was made. Some penguins also swam to new areas instead after hearing a call. Offshore calls probably aren’t meant to tell others where the food is, though, since the penguins’ hunting behavior (like going on a dive) didn’t change afterward.

As always, the scientists tell us that further research needs to be done, but in the meanwhile, these videos really are delightful.

A swimming penguin
Credit: Won Young Lee