We’ve had sharkcam, whalecam, catcam, and now we have penguincam. Scientists love to attach cameras to creatures in a bid to understand what they get up to away from prying human eyes. Now, we’ve learned just a little bit more about the hunting habits of African penguins.
Researchers at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa, posited that the foraging success of seabirds, which mainly hunt using sight and smell, depended on prey depth (ie. the closer the prey is to the surface, the better). They suspected they were getting help from diving birds like penguins, which can plummet to depths of over 100 meters (330 feet), but there was no evidence as yet. So they strapped cameras to the penguins to find out.
Alistair McInnes and Pierre Pistorius attached lightweight cameras to the backs of 20 African penguins at Stony Point nature reserve on the southern tip of South Africa. They recorded 57 dives, and 31 hours of footage, shot over four breeding seasons between June and August 2015 and 2018.
The footage showed the penguins regularly dove to a depth of around 30 meters (100 feet), where they would herd schools of anchovy up to around 5 meters (16 feet) below the surface, much like dolphins and killer whales, before picking them off. This, of course, enabled the seabirds to reap the benefits too.
According to their study published in Royal Society Open Science, it was clear the flying seabirds were actively seeking out the diving penguins to make use of their ability to drive prey to the surface, and this targeting was increasing the success of the seabirds’ foraging. What the penguins get out of it is unclear, but this behavior suggests diving seabirds play an integral role in the foraging success of flying seabirds, and an important role in the marine community.
This is the first time this facilitation has been shown from a penguin’s perspective, thanks to the video cameras attached to the penguins. "This may be especially advantageous when prey is scarce as penguins are known to track the distribution of their prey effectively around their breeding colonies, usually within 40 km of their colonies between April and October," McInnes told Newsweek.
African penguins are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, with only 50,000 mature adults in the wild. One of the main reasons for their decreasing population – which has dropped more than 70 percent since 2004 – is a huge decline in their prey due to commercial fishing operations using nets designed to catch entire schools of fish. Finding out how they hunt and catch prey will help us plan how to help manage their food sources.