Penguins pick their favourite fishing palls

14 October 2007
Posted by Chris Smith.

Picture the scene.  You're sitting on a beach on the south coast of Australia, with your eyes and nose filled with the sounds and smells of waves crashing in the distance.  But you're not alone, and a gaggle of fairy penguins come hopping and waddling past you, as they make their way down to the sea to go feeding for the day.

Fairy PenguinsThese are the smallest of the worlds penguins, standing just over one foot tall, and instead of dashing down the beach in one big group, the penguins break up into smaller gangs of five to ten, to help avoid being snapped up by predators.

This was the scene that a team of researchers saw at Philip Island Nature Park, in Victoria Australia, and it got them wondering whether the birds form these groups randomly or whether penguins selectively choose particular fishing buddies, a bit like kids picking teams in the school playground for a game of football.

The scientists monitored the movements of individual penguins for four years using an Automated Penguin Monitoring System, which involves placing electronic microchips under their skin.

And they found that penguins do indeed tend to team up with the same penguins to go out fishing, perhaps because it helps if teams of penguins share the same knowledge of particular fishing sites.

But the penguins didn't always team up into the same groups.  In years when food was less abundant and fewer chicks were fledged, penguins tended to abandon their groups and feed on their own, perhaps so they didn't have to share the food they found.

And also younger and older penguins weren't picked to form fishing teams because both groups tend to be less good at fishing.

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