|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 because of their small size. 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.
The little penguin was first described by German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1781. Several subspecies are known, but a precise classification of these is still a matter of dispute. The holotypes of the subspecies E. m. 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 of the little penguin, sometimes a separate species, and sometimes a colour morph.
Genetic analyses indicate that the Australian and Otago (the southeastern coast of South Island) little penguins may constitute a distinct species. In this case the specific name minor would devolve on it, with the specific name novaehollandiae suggested for the other populations. This interpretation suggests that E. novaehollandiae individuals arrived in New Zealand between A.D. 1500 and 1900, while the local E. minor population had declined, leaving a genetic opening for a new species.
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 and 13 in) tall and usually weighs about 1.5 kg on average (3.3 lb). The head and upper parts are blue in colour, with slate-grey ear coverts fading to white underneath, from the chin to the belly. Their flippers are blue in colour. 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 (including 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, Western Australia and the Jervis Bay Territory. 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 circa 2011 were around 350,000-600,000 animals.
Overall, little penguin populations in New Zealand have been decreasing. Some colonies have become 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 a small increase has occurred on Motunau Island. A colony exists in Wellington Harbor on Matiu/Somes 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. Foraging penguins have occasionally been seen as far north as Southport, Queensland and Shark Bay, Western Australia.
New South Wales
An endangered population of little penguins exists at Manly, in Sydney's North Harbour. 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.
Jervis Bay Territory
A population of about 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). The only known mainland colony exists at Bunda Cliffs on the state's far west coast, though colonies have existed historically on Yorke Peninsula. A report released in 2011 presented evidence supporting the listing of the statewide population or the more closely monitored sub-population from Gulf St. Vincent as Vulnerable under South Australia's National Parks & Wildlife Act 1972. As of 2014, the little penguin is not listed as a species of conservation concern, despite ongoing declines at many colonies.
Tasmanian has Australia's largest little penguin population, with estimates ranging from 110,000 to 190,000 breeding pairs, of which less than 5% are found on mainland Tasmania. Conservation activities, education campaigns, and measures to prevent dog attacks on little penguin rookeries have been implemented.
The largest colony of little penguins in Victoria is located at Phillip Island, where the nightly 'parade' of penguins across Summerland Beach has been a major tourist destination, and more recently a major conservation effort, since the 1920s. Phillip Island is home to an estimated 32,000 breeding adults. Little penguins can also be seen in the vicinity of the St Kilda, Victoria pier and breakwater. The breakwater is home to a colony of little penguins which have been the subject of a conservation study since 1986. As of 2020 the colony is 1,400 breeding adults and growing.
The largest colony of little penguins in Western Australia is believed to be located on Penguin Island, where an estimated 1,000 pairs nest during winter. Penguins are also known to nest on Garden Island and Carnac Island which lie north of Penguin Island. Many islands along Western Australia's southern coast are likely to support little penguin colonies, though the status of these populations is largely unknown. An account of little penguins on Bellinger Island published in 1928 numbered them in their thousands. Visiting naturalists in November 1986 estimated the colony at 20 breeding pairs. The account named another substantial colony 12 miles from Bellinger Island and the same distance from Cape Pasley. Little penguins are known to breed on some islands of the Recherche Archipelago, including Woody Island where day-tripping tourists can view the animals. A penguin colony exists on Mistaken Island in King George Sound near Albany. Historical accounts of little penguins on Newdegate Island at the mouth of Deep River and on Breaksea Island near Torbay also exist. West Australian little penguins have been found to forage as far as 150 miles north of Geraldton (south of Denham and Shark Bay).
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 leave their nest at sunrise, forage for food throughout the day and return to their nests just after dusk. Thus, sunlight, moonlight and artificial lights can affect the behaviour of attendance to the colony. Also, increased wind speeds negatively affect the little penguins' efficiency in foraging for chicks, but for reasons not yet understood. 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.
Tagged or banded birds later recaptured or found deceased have shown that individual birds can travel great distances during their lifetimes. In 1984, a penguin that had been tagged at Gabo Island in eastern Victoria was found dead at Victor Harbor in South Australia. Another little penguin was found near Adelaide in 1970 after being tagged at Phillip Island in Victoria the previous year. In 1996, a banded penguin was found dead at Middleton. It had been banded in 1991 at Troubridge Island in Gulf St Vincent, South Australia.
The little penguin's foraging range is quite limited in terms of distance from shore when compared to seabirds that can fly.
Little penguins feed by hunting small clupeoid fish, cephalopods and crustaceans, for which they travel and dive quite extensively including to the sea floor. Researcher Tom Montague studied a Victorian population for two years in order to understand its feeding patterns. Montague's analysis revealed a penguin diet consisting of 76% fish and 24% squid. Nineteen fish species were recorded, with pilchard and anchovy dominating. The fish were usually less than 10 cm long and often post-larval or juvenile. Less common little penguin prey include: crab larvae, eels, jellyfish and seahorses. In New Zealand, important little penguin 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. Pilchards previously featured more prominently in southern Australian little penguin diets prior to mass sardine mortality events of the 1990s. These mass mortality events affected sardine stocks over 5,000 kilometres of coastline. Jellyfish including species in the genera Chrysaora and Cyanea were found to be actively sought-out food items, while they previously had been thought to be only accidentally ingested. Similar preferences were found in the Adélie penguin, yellow-eyed penguin and Magellanic penguin. A important crustacean present in the little penguin diet is the krill, Nyctiphanes australis, which surface-swarms during the day.
Little penguins are generally inshore feeders. The use of data loggers has shown that in the diving behaviour of little penguins, 50% of dives go no deeper than 2 m, and the mean diving time is 21 seconds. In the 1980s, average little penguin dive time was estimated to be 23–24 seconds. The maximum recorded depth and time submerged are 66.7 metres and 90 seconds respectively.
Tracking technology is allowing researchers from IMAS and the University of Tasmania to garner new insights into the foraging behavior of little penguins.
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 preen their mates to strengthen social bonds and remove parasites, especially from their partner's head where self-preening is difficult.
Little penguins reach sexual maturity at different ages. The female matures at two years old and the male at three years old.
Between June and August, males return to shore to renovate or dig new burrows and display to attract a mate for the season. Males compete for partners with their displays. Breeding occurs annually, but the timing and duration of the breeding season varies from location to location and from year to year. Breeding occurs during spring and summer when oceans are most productive and food is plentiful.
Little penguins remain faithful to their partner during a breeding season and whilst hatching eggs. At other times of the year they 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.
Penguins' nests vary depending on the available habitat. They are established close to the sea in sandy burrows excavated by the birds' feet or dug previously by other animals. Nests may also be made 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. Nests have been occasionally observed to be shared with prions, while some burrows are occupied by short-tailed shearwaters and little penguins in alternating seasons. In the 1980s, little was known on the subject of competition for burrows between bird species.
The timing of breeding seasons varies across the species' range. In the 1980s, the first egg laid at a penguin colony on Australia's eastern coast could be expected to come as early as May or as late as October. Eastern Australian populations (including at Phillip Island, Victoria) lay their eggs from July to December. In South Australia's Gulf St. Vincent, eggs are laid between April and October and south of Perth in Western Australia, peak egg-laying occurred in June and continued until mid-October (based on observations from the 1980s).
Male and female birds share incubating 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. In ideal conditions, a penguin pair is capable of raising two or even three clutches of eggs over an extended season, which can last between eight and twenty-eight weeks.
The one or two (on rare occasions, three) white or lightly mottled brown eggs are laid between one and four days apart. Each egg typically weighs around 55 grams at time of laying. Incubation takes up to 36 days. Chicks are brooded for 18–38 days and fledge after 7–8 weeks. On Australia's east coast, chicks are raised from August to March. In Gulf St. Vincent, chicks are raised from June through November.
Little penguins typically return to their colonies to feed their chicks at dusk. The birds tend to come ashore in small groups to provide some defence against predators, which might otherwise pick off individuals. 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 22 in 2015. Granite Island is connected to the mainland via a timber causeway.
Predation by native animals is not considered a threat to little penguin populations, as these predators' diets are diverse. Large native reptiles including the tiger snake and Rosenberg's goanna are known to take little penguin chicks and blue-tongued lizards are known to take eggs. At sea, little penguins are eaten by long-nosed 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. Other marine predators include Australian sea lions, sharks and barracouta.
Little penguins 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 there. Other avian predators include: kelp gulls, pacific gulls, brown skuas and currawongs.
A mass mortality event occurred in Port Phillip Bay in March 1935. The event coincided with moulting and deaths were attributed to fatigue. Another event occurred at Phillip Island in Victoria in 1940. The population there was believed to have fallen from 2000 birds to 200. Dead birds were allegedly in healthy-looking condition so speculation pointed to a disease or pathogen.
Citizens have raised concerns about mass mortality of penguins alleging a lack of official interest in the subject. Discoveries of dead penguins in Australia should be reported to the corresponding state's environment department. In South Australia, a mortality register was established in 2011.
Relationship with humans
Little penguins have long been a curiosity to humans and to children in particular. Captive animals are often exhibited in zoos. Over time attitudes towards penguins have evolved from direct exploitation (for meat, skins and eggs) to the development of tourism ventures, conservation management and the protection of both birds and their habitat.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, little penguins were shot for "sport", killed for their skins, captured for amusement and eaten by ship-wrecked sailors and castaways to avoid starvation. Their eggs were also collected for human consumption by indigenous and non-indigenous people. In 1831, N. W. J. Robinson noted that penguins were typically soaked in water for many days to tenderise the meat before eating.
'F.W.M.,' Port Lincoln. — To clean penguin skins, scrape off as much fat as you can with a blunt knife. Then peg the skin out carefully, stretching it well. Let it remain in the sun till most of the fat is dried out of it, then rub with a compound of powdered alum, salt, and pepper in about equal proportions. Continue to rub this on at intervals until the skin becomes soft and pliable.
An Australian taxidermist was once commissioned to make a woman's hat for a cocktail party from the remains of a dead little penguin. The newspaper described it as "a smart little toque of white and black feathers, with black flippers set at a jaunty angle on the crown."
In the 20th century, little penguins have been maliciously attacked by humans, used as bait to catch Southern rock lobster, used to free snagged fishing tackle, killed as incidental bycatch by fishermen using nets, and killed by vehicle strikes on roads and on the water.
In the late 20th and 21st centuries, more mutually beneficial relationships between penguins and humans developed. The sites of some breeding colonies have become carefully managed 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.
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 or film the birds (this is because it can blind or scare them) interacting in their colony. In 1987, more international visitors viewed the penguins coming ashore at Phillip Island than visited Uluru. In the financial year 1985–86, 350,000 people saw the event, and at that time audience numbers were growing 12% annually.
In Bicheno, Tasmania, evening penguin viewing tours are offered by a local tour operator at a rookery on private land. A similar sunset tour is offered at Low Head, near the mouth of the Tamar River on Tasmania's north coast. Observation platforms exist near some of Tasmania's other little penguin colonies, including Bruny Island and Lillico Beach near Devonport.
South of Perth, Western Australia, visitors to Penguin Island are able to view penguin feeding within a penguin rehabilitation centre and may also encounter wild penguins ashore in their natural habitat. The island is accessible via a short passenger ferry ride, and visitors depart the island before dusk to protect the colony from disturbance.
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.
In the Otago, New Zealand town of Oamaru, 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 on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, New Zealand. Here visitors are guided by volunteer wardens to watch penguins returning to their burrows at dusk.
Food availability appears to strongly influence the survival and breeding success of little penguin populations across their range.
Variation in prey abundance and distribution from year to year causes young birds to be washed up dead from starvation or in weak condition. This problem is not constrained to young birds, and has been observed throughout the 20th century. The breeding season of 1984–1985 in Australia was particularly bad, with minimal breeding success. Eggs were deserted prior to hatching and many chicks starved to death. Malnourished penguin carcasses were found washed up on beaches and the trend continued the following year. In April 1986, approximately 850 dead penguins were found washed ashore in south-western Victoria. The phenomenon was ascribed to lack of available food.
There are two seasonal peaks in the discovery of dead little penguins in Victoria. The first follows moult and the second occurs in mid-winter. Moulting penguins are under stress, and some return to the water in a weak condition afterwards. Mid-winter marks the season of lowest prey availability, thus increasing the probability of malnutrition and starvation.
In 1990, 24 dead penguins were found in the Encounter Bay area in South Australia during a week spanning late April to early May. A State government park ranger explained that many of the birds were juvenile and had starved after moulting.
In 1995 pilchard mass mortality events occurred, which reduced the penguins' available prey and resulted in starvation and breeding failure. Another similar event occurred in 1999. Both mortality events were attributed to an exotic pathogen which spread across the entire Australian population of the fish, reducing the breeding biomass by 70%. Crested tern and gannet populations also suffered following these events.
In 1995, 30 dead penguins were found ashore between Waitpinga and Chiton Rocks in the Encounter Bay area. The birds has suffered severe bacterial infections and the mortalities may have been linked to the mass mortality of pilchards that resulted from the spread of an exotic pathogen that year.
In the late 1980s, it was believed that penguins did not compete with the fishing industry, despite anchovy being commercially caught. That assertion was made prior to the establishment and development of South Australia's commercial pilchard fishery in the 1990s. In South Africa, the overfishing of species of preferred penguin prey has caused Jackass penguin populations to decline. Overfishing is a potential (but not proven) threat to the little penguin.
Dogs and cats
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 affected by dog attacks include Manly, New South Wales, Penneshaw, South Australia, Red Chapel Beach, Wynyard, Camdale and Low Head in Tasmania, Penguin Island in Western Australia and Little Kaiteriteri Beach in New Zealand. Paw prints at an attack site at Freeman's Knob, Encounter Bay, South Australia showed that the dog responsible was small, roughly the size of a terrier. The single attack may have rendered the small colony extinct. Cats have been recorded preying on penguin chicks at Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. In October 2011, 15 dead penguin chicks were found near the Kingscote colony with their heads removed. A dog or cat attack was presumed to be the cause of death. A similar event also occurred in 2010.
The threat of dog and cat attack is ongoing at many colonies and reports of dog attacks on penguins date back to the mid 20th century. In the first seven months of 2014, South Australian animal rescue organisation AMWRRO received and treated 22 penguins that had been injured during dog attacks.
Foxes have been known to prey on little penguins since at least the early 20th century. A fox was believed responsible for the deaths of 53 little penguins over several nights on Granite Island in 1994. Little penguins on Middle Island off Warrnambool, Victoria have suffered heavy predation by foxes, which were able to reach the island at low tide by a tidal sand bridge. The small colony was reduced from approximately 600 penguins in 2001 to less than 10 in 2005. The use of Maremma sheepdogs to guard the colony has helped it recover to 100 birds by 2017. In June 2015, 26 penguins from the Manly colony were killed in 11 days. A fox believed responsible was eventually shot in the area and an autopsy was expected to prove or disprove its involvement. In November 2015 a fox entered the little penguin enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo and killed 14 penguins, prompting measures to further "fox proof" the enclosure.
Ferrets and stoats
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. In 1950, roughly a hundred little penguins were allegedly burned to death near The Nobbies at Port Phillip Bay during a grass fire lit intentionally by a grazier for land management purposes. It was later reported that the figure had been overstated. The matter was resolved when the grazier offered to return land to the custody of the State for the future protection of the colony.
A study in Perth from 2003 to 2012 found that the main cause of mortality was trauma, most likely from watercraft, leading to a recommendation for management strategies to avoid watercraft strikes. The Conservation Council of Western Australia has expressed opposition to the proposed development of a marina and canals at Mangles Bay, in close proximity to penguin colonies at Penguin Island and Garden Island. Researcher Belinda Cannell of Murdoch University found that over a quarter of penguins found dead in the area had been killed by boats. Carcasses had been found with heads, flippers or feet cut off, cuts on their backs and ruptured organs. The development would increase boat traffic and result in more penguin deaths.
Penguins are vulnerable to interference by humans, especially while they are ashore during moult or nesting periods.
In 1930 in Tasmania, it was believed that little penguins were competing with mutton-birds, which were being commercially exploited. An "open season" in which penguins would be permitted to be killed was planned in response to requests from members of the mutton-birding industry.
In the 1930s, an arsonist was believed to have started a fire on Rabbit Island near Albany, Western Australia- a known little penguin rookery. Visitors later reported finding dead penguins there with their feet burned off. In 1938 an account was given of a little penguin found with its flippers tied together with fishing line.
In 1949, penguins on Phillip Island in Victoria became victims of human cruelty, with some kicked and others thrown off a cliff and shot at. These acts of cruelty prompted the state government to fence off the rookeries. In 1973, ten dead penguins and fifteen young seagulls were found dead on Wright Island in Encounter Bay, South Australia. It was believed that they were killed by people poking sticks down burrows before scattering the dead bodies around, though a dog attack is also possible. In 1983 one penguin was found dead and another injured at Encounter Bay, both by human interference. The injured bird was euthanased.
More recent examples of destructive interference can be found at Granite Island, where in 1994 a penguin chick was taken from a burrow and abandoned on the mainland, a burrow containing penguin chicks was trampled and litter was discarded down active burrows. In 1998, two incidents in six months resulted in penguin deaths. The latter, which occurred in May, saw 13 penguins apparently kicked to death. In March 2016, two little penguins were kicked and attacked by humans during separate incidents at the St Kilda colony, Victoria.
In 2018, 20-year-old Tasmanian man Joshua Leigh Jeffrey was fined $82.50 in court costs and sentenced to 49 hours of community service at Burnie Magistrates Court after killing nine little penguins at Sulphur Creek in North West Tasmania on 1 January 2016 by beating them with a stick. Dr Eric Woehler from conservation group Birds Tasmania denounced the perceived leniency of the sentence, which he said placed minimal value on Tasmania's wildlife and set an "unwelcome precedent". Following an appeal by prosecutors, Jeffrey had his sentence doubled on 15 October 2018. The office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said it considered the original sentence to be manifestly inadequate. The original sentence was set aside, and Jeffrey was sentenced to two months in prison, suspended on the condition of him committing no offences for a year that are punishable by imprisonment. His community order was also doubled to 98 hours.
Also in 2018, a dozen little penguin carcasses were found in a garbage bin at Low Head, Tasmania prompting an investigation into the causes of death.
Interactions with fishing
Some little penguins are drowned when amateur fishermen 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 was 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.
In the 20th century, little penguins were intentionally shot or caught by fishermen to use as bait in pots for catching Southern rock lobster (also known as crayfish) or by line fishermen. Colonies were targeted for this purpose in various parts of Tasmania including Bruny Island and at West Island, South Australia.
Oil spills can be lethal for penguins and other sea birds and events related ports and shipping have impacted penguins across the Southern hemisphere since the 1920s. 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 affected 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. In 2005, a 10-year post-mortem reflection on the Iron Baron incident estimated penguin fatalities at 25,000. The Rena incident killed 2,000 seabirds (including little penguins) directly, and killed an estimated 20,000 in total based on wider ecosystem impacts.
Victoria's coastline has been subjected to chronic oil contamination from minor discharges or spills which have impacted little penguins at several colonies. An oil spill or dumping event claimed the lives of up to 120 little penguins which were found oiled, deceased and ashore near Warnambool in 1990. A further 104 penguins were taken into care for cleaning. The waters west of Cape Otway were polluted with bunker oil. The source was unknown at the time and an investigation was started into three potentially responsible vessels.
Earlier oil spill or oil dumping events have injured or killed little penguins at various locations in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The threat persists in the 21st century, with oiled birds received for treatment at specialised facilities like AMWRRO in South Australia.
Plastics are swallowed by little penguins, who mistake them for prey items. They present a choking hazard and also occupy 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, affecting their mobility.
Heat waves can result in mass mortality episodes at nesting sites, as the penguins have poor physiological adaptations towards losing heat. Climate change is recognised as a threat, though currently it is assessed to be less significant than others. Efforts are being made to protect penguins in Australia from the likely future increased occurrence of extreme heat events.
Variation in the timing of seasonal ocean upwelling events, such as the Bonney Upwelling, which provide abundant nutrients vital to the growth and reproduction of primary producers at the base of the food chain, may adversely affect prey availability, and the timing and success or failure of little penguin breeding seasons.
Little penguins are protected from various threats under different legislation in different jurisdictions. The table below may not be exhaustive.
|Location||Status||Register or Legislation|
|Australia (Commonwealth waters)||Listed marine species.||Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999|
|Western Australia||Protected fauna.||Wildlife Conservation Act 1950|
|South Australia||Protected animal.
Mandatory reporting for fisheries interactions.
|National Parks & Wildlife Act 1972
Fisheries Management Act 2007
Mandatory reporting for fisheries interactions.
|Wildlife Act 1975
Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988
Penguins declared "sensitive wildlife" and some colony sites declared "sensitive areas".
|National Parks and Wildlife Act 1970
Dog Control Act 2000
|New South Wales||Threatened species (Manly colony only) .
Manly colony declared "Critical Habitat".
|Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016
Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995
|New Zealand||At risk - declining.||Wildlife Act 1953|
Management of introduced predators
Management strategies to mitigate the risk of domestic and feral dog and cats 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.
The threat of colony collapse at Warnambool prompted conservationists to pioneer the experimental use of Maremma Sheepdogs to protect the colony and fend off would-be predators. 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, released in 2015. In December 2015, the BBC reported, "The current dogs patrolling Middle Island are Eudy and Tula, named after the scientific term for the fairy penguin: Eudyptula. They are the sixth and seventh dogs to be used and a new puppy is being trained up [...] to start work in 2016.
In Sydney, snipers have been used 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. In 2019 it was announced that the defensive strategies were paying off and that Manly colony was recovering.
Near some colonies in Tasmania, traps are set and feral cats that are captured are euthanized.
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.
In 2019, concrete nesting "huts" were made for the little penguins of Lion Island in the mouth of the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, Australia. The island had been ravaged by a fire which began with a lightning strike and destroyed 85% of the penguin's natural habitat.
Weed control undertaken by the Friends of Five Islands in New South Wales helps improve prospects of breeding success for seabirds, including the little penguin. The main problem species on the Five Islands are kikuyu grass and coastal morning glory. The weeding work has resulted in increasing numbers of little penguin burrows in the areas weeded and the return of the white-faced storm petrel to the island after a 56-year breeding absence.
Oil spill response
Penguins are taken into care and cleaned by trained staff at specialised facilities when they are found alive in an oiled condition. When animals are first received at Phillip Island's rehabilitation facility, a knitted penguin sweater, made to a specific pattern, is applied to the bird. The sweater prevents the bird from attempting to preen off the oil itself. Once the birds have been treated and cleaned, the jumper is discarded. In 2019, the Phillip Island centre put out a call for 1,400 new penguin jumpers to be knitted after they increased the carrying capacity of their treatment facility. The last major oil spill the centre responded to saw 438 birds cleaned with a 96% survival rate after rehabilitation. The Melbourne Zoo also treats and rehabilitates oiled little penguins, and the Taronga Zoo has been cleaning and rehabilitating oiled penguins since the 1950s.
Zoological exhibits featuring purpose-built enclosures for little penguins can be seen in Australia at the Adelaide Zoo, Melbourne Zoo, the National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra, Perth Zoo, Caversham Wildlife Park (Perth), Ballarat Wildlife Park, Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Enclosures include nesting boxes or similar structures for the animals to retire into, a reconstruction of a pool and in some cases, a transparent aquarium wall to allow patrons to view the animals underwater while they swim.
A little penguin exhibit exists 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 where the penguins became ill. A new enclosure for the little penguin colony was opened at Sea World in 2008.
In New Zealand, little penguin exhibits exist at the Auckland Zoo, the Wellington Zoo and the National Aquarium of New Zealand. Since 2017, the National Aquarium of New Zealand, has featured a monthly "Penguin of the Month" board, declaring two of their resident animals the "Naughty" and "Nice" penguin for that month. Photos of the board have gone viral and gained the aquarium a large worldwide social media following.
A colony of little blue penguins exists at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. The penguins are one of three species on exhibit and are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan for little blue penguins. Little penguins can also be seen at the Louisville Zoo and the Bronx Zoo.
Mascots and 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.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Eudyptula minor.|
- State of Penguins: Little (blue) penguin – detailed and current species account of (Eudyptula minor) in New Zealand
- Little penguins at the International Penguin Conservation
- Little penguin at PenguinWorld
- West Coast 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.