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What Do Humans and the African Penguin Have in Common?

In most human languages, the most frequently used words are short. Think “the,” and, “of” and “a.” It turns out the same thing goes for penguins too. A team of researchers based in Italy have found “compelling evidence” that African penguins use the same speech patterns as we do — the first time this has been found in an animal other than a primate. The team recorded 590 breeding calls known as “ecstatic display songs.” They were sung by single birds during the mating season, from 28 adult African penguins in three different colonies in Italian zoos. The study found that the vocal sequences contained three distinct syllables of different length, with the “words” used most often the shortest, while the longest sequences were made up of shorter syllables. The researchers said this showed the flightless birds shared two traits of human speech — that the most frequently used words are shorter, but also the longer the sentence (or for penguins: the call), the shorter the sounds within it.