Lateralization (handedness) in Magellanic penguins

PeerJ. 2019 May 20;7:e6936. doi: 10.7717/peerj.6936. eCollection 2019.


Lateralization, or asymmetry in form and/or function, is found in many animal species. Brain lateralization is considered adaptive for an individual, and often results in "handedness," "footedness," or a side preference, manifest in behavior and morphology. We tested for lateralization in several behaviors in a wild population of Magellanic penguins Spheniscus magellanicus breeding at Punta Tombo, Argentina. We found no preferred foot in the population (each penguin observed once) in stepping up onto an obstacle: 53% stepped up with the right foot, 47% with the left foot (n = 300, binomial test p = 0.27). We found mixed evidence for a dominant foot when a penguin extended a foot for thermoregulation, possibly depending on the ambient temperature (each penguin observed once). Penguins extended the right foot twice as often as the left foot (n = 121, p < 0.0005) in 2 years when we concentrated our effort during the heat of the day. In a third year when we observed penguins early and late in the day, there was no preference (n = 232, p = 0.59). Penguins use their flippers for swimming, including searching for and chasing prey. We found morphological evidence of a dominant flipper in individual adults: 60.5% of sternum keels curved one direction or the other (n = 76 sterna from carcasses), and 11% of penguins had more feather wear on one flipper than the other (n = 1217). Right-flippered and left-flippered penguins were equally likely in both samples (keels: p = 0.88, feather wear: p = 0.26), indicating individual but not population lateralization. In fights, aggressive penguins used their left eyes preferentially, consistent with the right side of the brain controlling aggression. Penguins that recently fought (each penguin observed once) were twice as likely to have blood only on the right side of the face (69%) as only on the left side (31%, n = 175, p < 0.001). The proportion of penguins with blood only on the right side increased with the amount of blood. In most fights, the more aggressive penguin used its left eye and attacked the other penguin's right side. Lateralization depended on the behavior tested and, in thermoregulation, likely on the temperature. We found no lateralization or mixed results in the population of Magellanic penguins in three individual behaviors, stepping up, swimming, and thermoregulation. We found lateralization in the population in the social behavior fighting.

Keywords: Aggression; Behavior; Fight orientation; Footedness; Handedness; Lateralization; Magellanic penguin; Sex; Spheniscus magellanicus; Thermoregulation.

Grant support

Research at Punta Tombo was funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Exxonmobil Foundation, the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, the National Geographic Society, the Chase, Cunningham, MKCG, Offield, Peach, Thorne, Tortuga, and Kellogg Foundations, the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science, and Friends of the Penguins. There was no additional external funding received for this study. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.