11 December 2017

Fishing nets major threat to penguins

AUSTRALIA – The results of the first global review of penguin bycatch are in – and they highlight the serious risks that fishing nets pose to the survival of many penguin species. The study was published in the journal Endangered Species Research.

Penguins are among the world’s most iconic and loved birds, in spite of the fact most people will never get to see one in the wild. And opportunities to do so are diminishing, with 10 of the 18 penguin species threatened with extinction. After albatrosses, penguins are the most threatened group of seabirds. And this global review shows that, as it is for albatrosses, bycatch is a serious threat to some penguin species.

02 December 2017

Yellow-eyed penguin nest numbers down

NEW ZEALAND – Recent yellow-eyed/hoiho penguin nest counts on mainland New Zealand indicate a continued decline in numbers in some areas for this rare species, said Department of Conservation (DOC) Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki.

DOC carries out monitoring, research, and intensive management for yellow-eyed penguins alongside Treaty Partner Ngāi Tahu, key programme partner the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, University of Otago, important local associates such as Penguin Place and Penguin Rescue, community groups and volunteers.

06 November 2017

Penguins' calls are influenced by their habitat

AUSTRALIA – Birds use vocalisations to attract mates, defend territories and recognise fellow members of their species. But while we know a lot about how variations in vocalisations play out between populations of songbirds, it’s far less clear how this variation affects birds such as penguins in which calls are inherited.

A little penguin. Photo credit: D. Colombelli-Négrel
A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances examined differences in the calls of little penguins – nocturnal birds for whom vocalisations are more important that visual signals – from four colonies in Australia. It found that disparities in habitat, rather than geographic isolation or other factors, seem to be the key driver of variation in the sounds these birds use to communicate.

Diane Colombelli-Négrel and Rachel Smale of Flinders University recorded calls from four little penguin populations across a small area of South Australia, one of which had previously been shown to have subtle genetic differences from the other three. They then used playback experiments to test penguins’ ability to distinguish between calls from different colonies.

06 October 2017

A first look at geographic variation in gentoo penguin calls

Many birds use sound to attract mates and defend territories – vocal communication is central to their lives. Penguins are no exception, but we know little about how or why penguin vocalisations vary geographically between isolated populations.

Gentoo penguin calling. Credit: M Lynch.
A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances takes a broad look at vocalisations across the range of gentoo penguins. It concludes that while their calls do vary from place to place, we still have a lot to learn about the processes at work.

The gentoo penguin’s “ecstatic” call, consisting of repeated pairs of short syllables, is used to attract and contact mates. Maureen Lynch and her PhD advisor Dr Heather Lynch (no relation) of Stony Brook University recorded ecstatic calls at 22 gentoo penguin colonies across the Antarctic Peninsula, southern Argentina and nearby islands.

They found variation in call frequency and duration both within and between colonies, but saw no clear patterns based on latitude, region or subspecies. An algorithm based on their data was able to classify calls to correct colonies better than random, but with a high error rate.

04 October 2017

Penguin-mounted video captures gastronomic close encounters of the gelatinous kind

SOUTHERN OCEANS – Footage from penguin-mounted mini video recorders shows four species of penguin eating jellyfish and other gelatinous animals, a food source penguins were not previously believed to eat. Scientists reported the findings this month in the Ecological Society of America's peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Video logs confirmed that penguins targeted gelatinous animals for meals  – the birds did not merely ingest them accidentally while aiming for fish or other prey. Connecting this link in the food web helps ecologists understand the ecological niche of "gelata", a group the authors have defined based on shared gelatinous physique and ocean habitat, though it includes organisms from very different branches of the tree of life.

19 August 2017

The penguin that never was: "a fun and unexpected story"

NEW ZEALAND – A Tasmanian penguin long thought extinct never even existed, University of Otago-led research has discovered.

New science has debunked old science by showing the bones from the so-called Hunter Island penguin were actually from three different living penguin species, including two from New Zealand.

Otago Department of Zoology PhD candidate Ms Tess Cole says the findings, using ancient DNA methods, were unexpected.

11 August 2017

Scientists track penguins by analysing tail feathers

ANTARCTICA – Knowing where and how Antarctic penguins, and other seabirds and marine predators, migrate is critical for conservation efforts. Electronic tracking devices have helped scientists track marine animals’ migration patterns, but the devices can be expensive, invasive for the animal and challenging to retrieve.

A pair of nesting adult chinstrap penguins
in the South Shetland Islands,
Antarctic Peninsula.
Photo credit: M. Polito, LSU
Now, scientists have discovered a new and potentially better way to track where penguins go over the winter using forensics. The study was published on 9 August in Biology Letters.

“You can say, penguins ‘are where they eat,’ because a geochemical signature of their wintering area is imprinted into their feathers,” said Louisiana State University (LSU) Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences Assistant Professor Michael Polito, the lead author of the study.

Chinstrap and Adélie penguins are part of the family of “brush-tailed” penguins named after their long, stiff tail feathers. These birds shed all of their feathers after each breeding season and before they migrate to their oceanic wintering grounds. However, their long tail feathers continue to grow well into the winter when penguins are at sea.