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Roehampton Zoologist’s new study reveals king penguin’s survival strategies

A Roehampton zoologist from the Department of Life Sciences has conducted a new study revealing that sleeping king penguins react differently to the sounds of predators versus non-predators.

Posted: 8 July 2016

image for news story Roehampton Zoologist’s new study reveals king penguin’s survival strategies
Tessa Abigail van Walsum in the field with the king penguins.

PhD student, Tessa Abigail van Walsum, has been studying the diving physiology and the sleeping behaviour of king penguins in colonies on the beach at Crozet (Ile de la Possession), a French sub-Antarctic island.

King penguins head out to sea to forage for weeks at a time, and return to the colony to start courtship or to feed their chick. While on land they will sleep standing up, sometimes they will keep an eye open to scan the environment for possible threats. Because penguin colonies are large and dense which means their vision may be blocked, penguins also scan the environment for threatening sounds. Tessa Abigail van Walsum tested the penguin’s reactions to the environment by playing a variety of sounds. She measured the time it took for the penguins to respond and their response to these sounds. The sounds were fifteen seconds in length and increased in volume over time. 

King penguins are at risk to large predators such as orca whales, and petrels. They are also at risk for non-predators such as elephant seals that can potentially crush the penguins when barging through the colony. In order to survive, king penguins must be aware of the environment around them, even whilst sleeping.

Tessa Abigail van Walsum said: “The sounds of approaching elephant seals rang big alarm bells for the penguins. Interestingly too, a recording of simple white noise had an unexpectedly strong effect, likely because it sounds much like an incoming wave on the beach. Presumably, king penguins sleep at sea when they are on long diving expeditions, so it will be fascinating to discover how they stay alert in that environment.”

The ability of the penguins to respond differently upon waking up suggests that they may always be keeping an eye and ear open, and perhaps sleeping with only half of their brain. Tessa has presented her research at the Society for Experimental Biology conference this week.

To find out more about the study click here.

Find out more about how you could study animals on our Zoology courses and Biological Sciences courses in the Life Sciences Department at Roehampton.

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