BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

The BBC's Christine McGourty
"A unique call sign"
 real 28k

Where are you?
Listen to the call of a penguin
 real 28k

Professor Clive Catchpole
The call is like an individual identity code
 real 28k

Wednesday, 7 June, 2000, 07:57 GMT 08:57 UK
P-p-p-pick out a penguin
Penguins BBC
Problem: How to find the family in a crowd
Penguins may all look the same but French scientists have discovered that each and every Emperor and King penguin has a unique call signal.

They use this signal to find their mates and offspring amid the crowds of penguins huddled together for warmth in the dark Antarctic winter.

The researchers say this beat pattern can best be described as a bar-code.

Their experiments have shown that penguins can identify their partner vocally but not visually.

Harsh winter

In the harsh Antarctic winter, penguins crowd together in their thousands to keep warm, while nurturing an egg or young chick on their feet.

Which way is home?
They share the childcare with a mate - one looks after the egg or chick while the other goes off in search of food.

However, with no nest as a meeting point, scientists have often wondered how the birds find each other in the crowd when they return from a hunt.

The team at Paris University say the penguins have two separate sound-producing structures, and calls are made when the sound from each of these combines to create a unique vocal identity code.

Evening dress

Professor Clive Catchpole is an expert in animal communications at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has followed the French research closely.

He says the findings are fascinating: "These penguins have to breed down in the Antarctic in the winter, when it is dark, minus 40 degrees and snowing. And the problem is they can't actually see each other until they are really close - and as you know, they all wear evening dress."

Professor Catchpole says the birds must learn the individual acoustic bar-codes very early, perhaps even in the egg.

"The remarkable thing we don't really understand yet is how the birds can pick out one call when it is drowned by a larger volume of noise. This is what is called in psychology the cocktail party effect: you can hear someone talking about you across a crowded room."

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

08 Mar 00 | Scotland
The 'innocent' polluters
12 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Seals shoot underwater video
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories