Noise pollution & penguins

Posted on the 14th December 2021

(This article first appeared in the BirdLife South Africa e-Newsletter: December 2021 – Ed.)

The cacophony of calls emanating from an African Penguin colony is probably a familiar auditory memory for anyone who has visited the colonies at Boulders Beach or Betty’s Bay. However, most people are unfamiliar with the penguins’ social communication systems at sea and it is in this habitat that these auditory cues are likely to be crucially important in locating profitable foraging areas and forming groups to minimise their chances of being predated on while preening or commuting. A recent study based on recordings from animal-borne video recorders has shown that African Penguins regularly call at sea and do so using at least three types of call.

Given that penguins spend a considerable amount of time below the sea’s surface, they are also exposed to underwater sounds. Recent research has established the first evidence for underwater penguin calls, but as yet little is known about the relative importance of these marine communication systems for African Penguins. Nor do we understand how the penguins’ communication networks may be influenced by artificial noise from vessel traffic and seismic surveys, sources of marine noise pollution that are known to negatively impact many other marine animals, including whales and dolphins.
To fill these knowledge gaps, the project Acoustic Foraging Networks in African Penguins (AFNAP), led by Dr Andréa Thiebault from the University of Paris-Saclay, has been established and will work in partnership with BirdLife South Africa’s coastal seabird team, Nelson Mandela University and SANCCOB. The project aims to understand the surface and underwater acoustic communication systems of African Penguins, the functions of these calls in relation to different behaviours (including those that influence foraging success) and how these communication networks are influenced by increasing anthropogenic noise in the marine environment.

A key site we are concerned about is Algoa Bay, home to two of the largest global breeding colonies of African Penguins and where there has been an exponential increase in shipping traffic recently. The results of this study will be used to inform the sustainable management of activities associated with marine noise pollution to limit this threat in an increasingly hostile marine environment for these birds.

AFNAP has been generously supported by a European Union Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant and funding from the French National Centre for Research–International Emerging Action, as well as Tygerberg Bird Club, which sponsored an expensive miniature hydrophone. If you too would like to contribute to the AFNAP project, please contact me at For more information about the AFNAP project, please visit



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