|Near burrow at night, Bruny Island, Tasmania, Australia|
The Little penguin (Eudyptula minor) is the smallest species of penguin. It grows to an average of 33 cm (13 in) in height and 43 cm (17 in) in length, though specific measurements vary by subspecies. It is found on the coastlines of southern Australia and New Zealand, with possible records from Chile. In Australia, they are often called fairy penguins. In New Zealand, they are more commonly known as Little blue penguins or Blue penguins, owing to their slate-blue plumage. They are also known by their Māori name: kororā.
- 1 Taxonomy
- 2 Description
- 3 Distribution and habitat
- 4 Threats
- 5 Behaviour
- 6 Relationship with humans
- 7 Mascots & logos
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The little penguin was first described by German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1781. There are several subspecies but a precise classification of these is still a matter of dispute. The holotypes of the subspecies Eudyptula minor variabilis and Eudyptula minor chathamensis are in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The white-flippered penguin is sometimes considered a subspecies, sometimes a distinct species, and sometimes a morph. As the Australian and Otago (southeastern coast of South Island) little penguins may be a distinct species to which the specific name minor would apply, the white-flippered birds indeed belong to a distinct species, although not exactly as originally assumed.
Mitochondrial and nuclear DNA evidence suggests the split between Eudyptula and Spheniscus occurred around 25 million years ago, with the ancestors of the white-flippered and little penguins diverging about 2.7 million years ago.
Like those of all penguins, the little penguin's wings have developed into flippers used for swimming. The little penguin typically grows to between 30 and 33 cm (12 to 13 inches) tall and usually weighs about 1.5 kilogram on average (3.3 pounds). The head and upperparts are blue in colour, with slate-grey ear coverts fading to white underneath, from the chin to the belly. The flippers are blue. The dark grey-black beak is 3–4 cm long, the irises pale silvery- or bluish-grey or hazel, and the feet pink above with black soles and webbing. An immature individual will have a shorter bill and lighter upperparts.
Distribution and habitat
The little penguin breeds along the entire coastline of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands, and southern Australia (including roughly 20,000 pairs on Babel Island). Australian colonies exist in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. Little penguins have also been reported from Chile (where they are known as Pingüino pequeño or Pingüino azul) (Isla Chañaral 1996, Playa de Santo Domingo, San Antonio, 16 March 1997) and South Africa, but it is unclear whether these birds were vagrants. As new colonies continue to be discovered, rough estimates of the world population are around 350,000-600,000 animals.
Overall, little penguin populations in New Zealand have been decreasing. Some colonies have gone extinct and others continue to be at risk. Some new colonies have been established in urban areas. The species is not considered endangered in New Zealand, with the exception of the white-flippered subspecies found only on Banks Peninsula and nearby Motunau Island. Since the 1960s, the mainland population has declined by 60-70%; though there has been a small increase on Motunau Island.
Australian Little penguin colonies primarily exist on offshore islands where they are protected from feral terrestrial predators and human disturbance. Colonies are found from Port Stephens in northern New South Wales around the southern coast to Fremantle, Western Australia.
New South Wales
An endangered population of Little Penguins exists at Manly, North Sydney Harbor. The population is protected under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and has been managed in accordance with a Recovery Plan since the year 2000. The population once numbered in the hundreds, but has decreased to around 60 pairs of birds. The decline is believed to be mainly due to loss of suitable habitat, attacks by foxes and dogs and disturbance at nesting sites.
The largest colony in New South Wales is on Montague Island. Up to 8000 breeding pairs are known to nest there each year.
Jervis Bay Territory
A population of approximately 5,000 breeding pairs exists on Bowen Island. The colony has increased from 500 pairs in 1979 and 1500 pairs in 1985. During this time, the island was privately leased. The island was vacated in 1986 and is currently controlled by the federal government.
In South Australia, many Little penguin colony declines have been identified across the state. In some cases, colonies have declined to extinction (including the Neptune Islands, West Island, Wright Island, Pullen Island and several colonies on western Kangaroo Island), while others have declined from thousands of animals to few (Granite Island and Kingscote). A report released in 2011 presented evidence supporting the listing of the statewide population or the more closely monitored sub-population from St. Vincent's Gulf as Vulnerable under South Australia's National Parks & Wildlife Act 1974. As of 2014, the Little penguin is not listed as a species of conservation concern, despite ongoing declines at many colonies.
Tasmanian Little penguin population estimates range from 110,000–190,000 breeding pairs of which less than 5% are found on mainland Tasmania. Ever-increasing human pressure is predicted to result in the extinction of colonies on mainland Tasmania.
The largest colony of Little penguins in Western Australia is located on Penguin Island. Approximately 1000 pairs nest there during the winter.
Threats to little penguin populations include predation (both adult and nest predation) by a variety of terrestrial animals including cats, dogs, rats, foxes, large reptiles, ferrets and stoats. Due to their diminutive size and the introduction of new predators, some colonies have been reduced in size by as much as 98% in just a few years, such as the small colony on Middle Island, near Warrnambool, Victoria, which was reduced from approximately 600 penguins in 2001 to less than 10 in 2005. Because of this threat of colony collapse, conservationists pioneered an experimental technique using Maremma Sheepdogs to protect the colony and fend off would-be predators.
Uncontrolled dogs or feral cats can have sudden and severe impacts on penguin colonies (more than the penguin's natural predators) and may kill many individuals. Examples of colonies impacted by dog attacks include Manly, New South Wales, Penneshaw, South Australia, Red Chapel Beach, Tasmania and Little Kaiteriteri Beach, New Zealand.
Variation in prey abundance and distribution from year to year causes young birds to be washed up dead from starvation or in weak condition.
Some Little penguins are drowned when amateur fisherman set gill nets near penguin colonies. Discarded fishing line can also present an entanglement risk and contact can result in physical injury, reduced mobility or drowning. In 2014, a group of 25 dead Little penguins were found on Altona Beach in Victoria. Necropsies concluded that the animals had died after becoming entangled in net fishing equipment, prompting community calls for a ban on net fishing in Port Phillip Bay.
Oil spills can be lethal for penguins and other sea birds. Oil is toxic when ingested and penguins' buoyancy and the insulative quality of their plumage is damaged by contact with oil. Little penguin populations have been significantly impacted during two major oil spills at sea: the Iron Baron oil spill off Tasmania's north coast in 1995 and the grounding of the Rena off New Zealand in 2011.
Plastics are swallowed by Little penguins, who mistake them for prey items. They present a choking hazard and also occupying space in the animal's stomach. Indigestible material in a penguin's stomach can contribute to malnutrition or starvation. Other larger plastic items, such as bottle packaging rings can become entangled around penguins' necks impacting their mobility.
The impacts of human habitation in proximity to Little penguin colonies include collisions with vehicles, direct harassment, burning and clearing of vegetation and housing development.
Little penguins are diurnal and like many penguin species, spend the largest part of their day swimming and foraging at sea. During the breeding and chick rearing seasons, little penguins will leave their nest at sunrise, forage for food throughout the day and return to their nests just after dusk. Little penguins preen their feathers to keep them waterproof. They do this by rubbing a tiny drop of oil onto every feather from a special gland above the tail.
These birds feed by hunting small clupeoid fishes, cephalopods and crustaceans, for which they travel and dive quite extensively. In New Zealand, important prey items include arrow squid, slender sprat, Graham's gudgeon, red cod and ahuru. Since the year 2000, the Little penguins of Port Phillip Bay's diet has consisted mainly of barracouta, anchovy, and arrow squid. Sardines previously featured more prominently in southern Australian Little penguin diets prior to mass sardine mortality events of the 1990s. These mass mortality events impacted sardine stocks over 5,000 kilometres of coastline.
They are generally inshore feeders. The use of data loggers has provided information of the diving behaviour of little penguins. 50% of their dives go no deeper than 2 m and the mean diving time is 21 seconds. Yet, they are able to dive as deep as 20 m and remained submerged as long as 60 seconds. Little penguins play an important role in the ecosystem as not only a predator to parasites but also a host. Recent studies have shown a new species of feather mite that feeds on the preening oil on the feathers of the penguin.
Little penguins mature at different ages. The female matures at 2 years old. The male, however, matures at 3 years old. Little penguins only remain faithful to their partner in breeding seasons and whilst hatching eggs. At other times of the year they do tend to swap burrows. They exhibit site fidelity to their nesting colonies and nesting sites over successive years.
Little penguins can breed as isolated pairs, in colonies, or semi-colonially. Nests are situated close to the sea in burrows excavated by the birds or other species, or in caves, rock crevices, under logs or in or under a variety of man-made structures including nest boxes, pipes, stacks of wood or timber, and buildings. They are monogamous within a breeding season, and share incubation and chick rearing duties. They are the only species of penguin capable of producing more than one clutch of eggs per breeding season, but few populations do so. The one or two white or lightly mottled brown eggs are laid from July to mid-November, and with rarer second (or even third) clutches beginning as late as December. Incubation takes up to 36 days. Chicks are brooded for 18–38 days, and fledge after 7–8 weeks.
Little penguins typically return to their colonies to feed their chicks at dusk. The birds will tend to come ashore in small groups to provide some defence against predators which might pick off individuals one by one. In Australia, the strongest colonies are usually on cat-free and fox-free islands. However, the population on Granite Island (which is a fox, cat and dog-free island) has been severely depleted, from around 2000 penguins in 2001 down to 146 in 2009.
Relationship with humans
Little penguins have long been a curiosity to humans, and to children in particular. Captive animals are often exhibited in zoos. Historically, the animals have also been used as bait to catch Southern rock lobster, captured for amusement and eaten by ship-wrecked sailors and castaways to avoid starvation. They have also been the victims of malicious attacks by humans and incidental bycatch by fishermen using nets. The sites of many breeding colonies have developed into tourist destinations which provide an economic boost for coastal and island communities in Australia and New Zealand. These locations also often provide facilities and volunteer staff to support population surveys, habitat improvement works and Little penguin research programs.
South of Perth, Western Australia, visitors to Penguin Island are able to view penguins in a natural environment. Less than one hour from the centre of the city, it is possible to see little penguins in all months, including visiting sensitive areas where they remain on land for extended periods for the purposes of moulting.
At Phillip Island, Victoria, a viewing area has been established at the Phillip Island Nature Park to allow visitors to view the nightly "penguin parade". Lights and concrete stands have been erected to allow visitors to see but not photograph the birds interacting in their colony.
In Otago, New Zealand town of Oamaru, where visitors may view the birds returning to their colony at dusk. In Oamaru it is not uncommon for penguins to nest within the cellars and foundations of local shorefront properties, especially in the old historic precinct of the town. More recently, little penguin viewing facilities have been established at Pilots Beach, Otago Peninsula and Dunedin in New Zealand. Here visitors are guided by volunteer wardens to watch penguins returning to their burrows at dusk.
Visitors to Kangaroo Island, South Australia, have nightly opportunities to observe penguins at the Kangaroo Island Marine Centre in Kingscote and at the Penneshaw Penguin Centre. Granite Island at Victor Harbor, South Australia continues to offer guided tours at dusk, despite its colony dropping from thousands in the 1990s to dozens in 2014. There is also a Penguin Centre located on the island where the penguins can be viewed in captivity.
Several efforts have been made to improve breeding sites on Kangaroo Island, including augmenting habitat with artificial burrows and revegetation work. The Knox School's habitat restoration efforts were filmed and broadcast in 2008 by Totally Wild.
A colony of little penguins is also exhibited at Sea World, on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. In early March, 2007, 25 of the 37 penguins died from an unknown toxin following a change of gravel in their enclosure. It is still not known what caused the deaths of the little penguins, and it was decided not to return the 12 surviving penguins to the same enclosure in which the penguins became ill. A new enclosure for the little penguin colony was opened at Sea World in 2008.
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Little penguins in the wild are sometimes preyed upon by New Zealand fur seals. A study conducted by researchers from the South Australian Research and Development Institute found that roughly 40 percent of seal droppings in South Australia's Granite Island area contained little penguin remains.
They are also preyed upon by White-bellied sea eagles. These large birds-of-prey are endangered in South Australia and not considered a threat to colony viability.
On land, Little penguins are vulnerable to attack from domestic and feral dogs and cats. Attacks on Kangaroo Island, at Manly in Tasmania and in New Zealand have resulted in significant impacts to several populations. Management strategies to mitigate the risk of attack include establishing dog-free zones near penguin colonies and introducing regulations to ensure dogs to remain on leashes at all times in adjacent areas.
Little penguins on Middle Island in Warrnambool, Victoria were subject to heavy predation by foxes, which were able to reach the island at low tide by a tidal sand bridge. The deployment of Maremma sheepdogs to protect the penguin colony has deterred the foxes and enabled the penguin population to rebound. This is in addition to the support from groups of volunteers who work to protect the penguins from attack at night. The first Maremma sheepdog to prove the concept was Oddball, whose story inspired a feature film of the same name. The film is scheduled for release in 2015.
In Sydney, snipers have been deployed to protect a colony of little penguins. This effort is in addition to support from local volunteers who work to protect the penguins from attack at night.
Mascots & logos
Linus Torvalds, the original creator of Linux (a popular operating system kernel), was once pecked by a little penguin while on holiday in Australia. Reportedly, this encounter encouraged Torvalds to select Tux as the official Linux mascot.
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|Wikispecies has information related to: Eudyptula minor|
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- Little penguins at New Zealand Penguins
- Little penguins at the International Penguin Conservation
- The Blue Penguin Trust (New Zealand)
- Philip Island Nature Park website
- Gould's The Birds of Australia plate
- Roscoe, R. "Little (Blue) Penguin". Photo Volcaniaca. Retrieved 13 April 2008.