Penguins have been observed using teamwork to improve their fish-catching efficiency. African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) work together to corral fish into “bait balls”, making them easier to catch. This finding allows us to better understand the endangered birds’ behavior, which might be useful for their conservation.
African penguins are found off the southern coast of Africa and eat tiny fish, like anchovies and sardines. But due to collapses in fish stocks, their food is slowly running out, so scientists decided to find out more about how the birds feed.
Publishing their findings in Royal Society Open Science, the team attached tiny cameras to the backs of 12 penguins to look at how they behave underwater. In total, they gathered 14 hours of video data, giving them the chance to study the underwater lives of the intriguing birds.
The researchers were surprised to discover that the penguins fished as a team 33 percent of the time. They worked as a group to coerce fish up towards the water’s surface, herding them into columns and then into balls. This makes the fish easier to catch because any trying to escape from the ball makes for an easy meal. Using this specialized technique made the penguins 2.7 times more efficient at catching their prey than when they fished alone.
“This study provides the first evidence that penguins are actively interacting with other individuals to enhance hunting efficiency,” said Yuuki Watanabe from the National Institute of Polar Research, Japan, to New Scientist.
This kind of behavior has previously been seen in animals like dolphins, but never before in penguins. The birds were also found to communicate before hunting as a group, suggesting that they were intently planning their attack.
Sadly, African penguins are classed as endangered on the IUCN Red List and their numbers have dropped by more than 60 percent since the 1970s. The researchers are worried that fewer penguins will mean less ability to hunt as a team, in turn leading to a decrease in foraging efficiency. This could in turn cause the penguins to become even more endangered as they struggle to get enough food.
“If they benefit from group foraging and there are less birds at sea, it’s harder to find other penguins to benefit them when they’re foraging,” study author Alistair McInnes of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa, told New Scientist.