The ins and outs of social relationships amongst animals are a source of both fascination and scientific speculation. From parakeets that recognize each other based on a unique vocal fingerprint, to Zebra Finches that experience spikes in oxytocin while listening to the song of a favorite mentor, birds often play a significant role in this area of study. They are sociable, intelligent, and full of cognitive surprises.
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A recent study has suggested that African Penguins are capable of visually recognizing partners and companions based on a particular unique signature that each penguin has: spots! While it was previously thought that visual identification did not play a major role in the social lives of African Penguins, this study has presented evidence that these birds may use their markings to identify each other. This suggests that African Penguins may have a more “holistic” sense of their mates and fellows than once thought.
The test was conducted by placing individual penguins in a room with two life-sized photographs. One of the pictures was the penguin’s mate and the other was an identical photo of the penguin’s mate with its ventral dot pattern whited out leaving the chest and belly blank. Tests were also conducted showing just the head of the mate and just the body, to see which section, if any, provided a stronger visual cue to the test subject penguin.
If penguins spent a long time staring at one of the photographs, or tended to spend more time on that side of the testing enclosure, it was assumed that some level of recognition had occurred. The results indicate that the ventral dots on the chest and belly of an African Penguin act as a key piece of visual information, helping companions to identify an individual.
When presented with an image lacking ventral dots, African Penguins tended to gravitate toward the image with the dots included, staring at this image for much longer and physically moving toward its side of the enclosure. The importance of ventral dots was bolstered by the test that exposed the penguins to just the body of their mate. In this test, the African Penguins still demonstrated recognition of familiar penguins, despite being unable to see their faces. This indicates that the markings of the body may be used as identifiers.
This level of visual recognition is thought to be a cognitively complex task and may indicate that penguins are capable of more complicated thinking, processing, and social reasoning than was previously believed.
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