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African penguins use unique dot patterns to recognize each other

A team of psychologists and animal behaviorists collaborated from the University of Turin, the University of Oulu, and Zoomarine Italia, Torvaianica-Pomezia, revealing intriguing evidence suggesting that the distinctive array of black dots on the predominantly white fronts of African penguins may serve as a means for them to distinguish one another.

Published in the journal , the researchers conducted a straightforward experiment with a colony of African penguins residing in a marine park. Known for their social nature, African penguins have been studied for potential insights into more advanced behaviors, akin to those observed in primates.

Previous studies hinted at their ability for vocal accommodation, where group members adapt their vocalizations to resemble others in the group. In this new research, the scientists uncovered evidence indicating that the unique patterns of black dots on their white fronts play a role in facilitating individual recognition among penguins.

Given the general similarity in appearance among penguins, including African penguins, scientists have pondered how they differentiate each other. Intrigued by reports from Zoomarine Italia, where staff members memorize penguins' dot arrangements to identify them, the researchers explored whether this method aligns with the penguins' recognition process.

To investigate, they designed a simple experiment with a small enclosure featuring plywood walls just tall enough to obstruct a penguin's view. Cameras were set up on either end, and life-size pictures of two penguins were displayed on one far wall. A single penguin was enticed into the enclosure, with one of the pictures being its mate.

Observing the penguin's behavior as it alternated between the two pictures, the researchers repeated the exercise. In the second round, both pictures were of the test penguin's mate, but one had its dots digitally removed. The third round involved one picture of the mate and another of a different penguin without dots.

After conducting the experiment with multiple penguins, the researchers analyzed the videos. They discovered that, in the initial exercise, the test penguin gazed more at its mate and at the image with dots in the second round. However, in the third round, it stared equally at both pictures, suggesting a challenge in recognizing its mate without the distinguishing black dots.

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