26 October 2011

Builders racing to finish housing for hundreds of rescued penguins

NEW ZEALAND - A new enclosure for little blue penguins at the Wildlife Response Centre at Te Maunga is well on its way to completion. It was planned that three of the 10 planned aviaries would be complete by the afternoon of 25 October.

Each aviary can house up to approximately 25 penguins, and has an indoor pool and communal areas for the penguins to preen, feed and swim.

Oiled Wildlife Response Manager Kerri Morgan said it was important to monitor the penguin’s health and condition, especially at feeding times.

“Correct feeding is a critical part of the rehabilitation process and our staff take great care when feeding the penguins.

“We use either sprats or anchovies and need to ensure that none of the natural oils from the fish get on the birds’ feathers as this can damage their natural waterproofing. The penguins are all doing really well and have a great fighting spirit,” said Ms Morgan.

“We have 314 penguins in our care and the enclosures will be able to house them more comfortably long term. It is too early at the moment to say when they can be released, but we want to ensure all the penguins are healthy and well nourished before this takes place.”

The penguins get fed twice a day and eat five to seven fish per feeding. They also have one swim a day. This lets them condition and preen their feathers, which is crucial to their re-waterproofing.

In total the centre now has 379 live birds in its care, including 108 oiled penguins and 206 clean penguins. There are also New Zealand dotterels, pied shags, a shearwater and a tern, which are also clean.

The total number of dead birds as at 6pm 24 October is 1,370. Post-mortems are being carried out on the birds to determine if oiling is the cause of death.

Rena update #51, 25 October 2011, Maritime NZ

Littlest of little blue penguins at greatest risk

NEW ZEALAND - There is no 'good' time for an oil spill to happen. But for the little blue penguins of Mount Maunganui this is breeding season, and the timing of the Rena oil spill in the Bay of Plenty could not have been much worse.

Locals put the number of breeding pairs of little blue penguins in this area at around 200 to 300; and the population now has the full attention of a team from Maritime New Zealand's National Oiled Wildlife Recovery unit, monitoring their burrows daily to help the birds survive this environmental disaster.

Whilst these nocturnal penguins may not appreciate such close attention as they incubate their eggs, the monitoring is critical. The penguins come ashore during the evening to find their burrows, and many are becoming oiled crossing rocks covered in thick tar-like oil.

"If a penguin becomes oiled and tries to preen itself, it can swallow the oil and become very sick. If we find a bird that is heavily oiled, we collect it and take it back to the wildlife recovery centre to be cleaned and rehabilitated," explained WWF-New Zealand Marine Programme Manager Rebecca Bird, one of 140 field staff working as part of Maritime New Zealand's oiled wildlife recovery efforts.

Around 120 little blue penguins have been rescued from the mount so far, and their chances of survival are comparatively good - penguins are some of the most resilient birds in recovering from oil spills. But Rebecca and the team are facing a tough choice - removing an oiled bird will give it a chance of survival, but its clutch is unlikely to survive.

"We checked on the pair of little blue penguins in the 'window nest' a couple of nights ago, and the mate was oiled so we had to take him away to the recovery centre to be looked after. Then the next night we found the other penguin was oiled and had to take her away. We hope that the birds we recover will be rehabilitated successfully, but it's heartbreaking to know that saving them means their clutch won't be reared," said Rebecca.

In an effort to save the clutch, the team placed the eggs with another pair of penguins, but sadly the adoptive pair rejected the eggs.

"We evaluate them if they're not bad, if they've got no oil on them and the area they're coming in has got no oil around, then we twink them and mark them and let them go and check on them the next night and if they are covered in oil we call a team in and they get taken back to the base to get cleaned up and looked after," said Julia, a little blue penguin researcher and part of the penguin recovery team.

Local conservation volunteer Dave Richards, who has worked tirelessly leading one of the oiled wildlife response unit's penguin recovery teams, said some of the penguins who had lost their mate were abandoning their nests.

"They stay on their nests until they figure out their mate isn't coming back and eventually they'll go and feed."

Speaking on Friday 21 October from Rabbit Island, one of the offshore islands where the penguins nest, Dave said they had been 'inundated with oiled penguins' last night. It was the first time the team has been out to the island: "We were expecting the worst and we found 24 oiled penguins, seven dead, just in the landing bay. It's not so good out here. We're staying here for another day and night, and we're expecting two more team members which will be good.

"I never thought - it's a relatively small amount of oil - and it's already had such a devastating impact on the penguins." said Dave. "It's just heartbreaking."

It's a phrase that has been uttered by field staff countless times since the Rena ploughed into the Astrolabe Reef over two weeks ago - the numbers of dead birds are continuing to climb, 268 live birds are being cared for at the National Oiled Wildlife Recovery Unit, and the total dead will never be known.

But 'heartening' is another word that also comes to mind at the efforts of people like Dave, Rebecca and Julia, saving animals affected by this disaster.

"We can all see this year's crop of youngsters is going to be much lower," said Dave. "But, the good thing is that mum and dad are being saved and they'll be released when it's safe for them and they can get back to doing what penguins do, having more babies."

Littlest of little blue penguins at greatest risk: WWF field report, 21 October 2011, WWF

01 October 2011

Smell you later, cousin

Humboldt penguins at Brookfield Zoo.
Photo credit: Jim Schulz/Chicago
Zoological SocietU
USA - They may all smell the same to us humans – stinky – but “groundbreaking” research has shown that for penguins, other penguins’ odours are a distinguishing feature, and that the birds may use smell to determine if they are related to a potential mate.

Research by the University of Chicago and the ChicagoZoological Society, which manages Brookfield Zoo, shows how related Humboldt penguins are able to recognise each other. The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, could help conservationists design programs to help preserve endangered species. 

“Smell is likely the primary mechanism for kin recognition to avoid inbreeding within the colony,” said Heather Coffin, lead author of the paper.

Coffin conducted the research while a graduate student at the university. Co-authors of the paper are Jill Mateo, associate professor in Comparative Human Development, and Jason Watters, director of animal behaviour research for the Chicago Zoological Society.

“This is the first study to provide evidence for odour-based kin discrimination in birds,” said Mateo, who is a specialist on kin recognition.

Experts said the work offers important insights into how birds use smell to guide behaviour.

Mark E. Hauber, professor of psychology at Hunter College and a specialist on bird social recognition said that the research group’s work was “truly groundbreaking” in that it shows for the first time ever in birds how the captive penguins’ sense of smell “is both informative and functional in a behaviourally critical context: namely the recognition of friends from foes in general, and relatives from non-relatives in particular.”

Penguins are ideal subjects because they typically live in colonies made up of thousands of birds. They live in monogamous pairs, an arrangement that helps them raise their chicks, since parents frequently take turns leaving the nest to gather food. Despite the size of the community, mates are able to find each other after travelling for days foraging for food in the ocean.

Research on other sea birds has shown that smell helps guide birds to their home territory and helps them forage for food. Other research has shown that birds could use sound and sight to recognise each other, but no other studies have shown that smell might be used in connection with kin recognition, Mateo said.

In the study conducted at Brookfield Zoo, which has extensive records on which penguins are related and have been housed together, researchers first sought to determine if the penguins were able to recognise familiar individuals by smell. They constructed an experiment using a dozen penguins, from a group that included breeding pairs, their offspring and non-breeding individuals. The Humboldt penguins were from groups either on exhibit or off exhibit.

Researchers took odour samples from glands near the penguins’ tails, where an oil that the birds use for preening is secreted. They put the oil on cotton swabs and rubbed the odour inside dog kennels, similar to the enclosures penguins at a zoo use for their nests. They also put the odour on paper coffee filters and placed them under mats inside the kennels.

When the penguins were released to the area containing the kennels, the researchers found that penguins spent more time in the kennels with familiar odours. The penguins were able to distinguish between the odours of birds they spent time with and the odours of unfamiliar penguins.

“It’s important for birds that live in large groups in the wild, like penguins, to know who their neighbours are so that they can find their nesting areas and also, through experience, know how to get along with the birds nearby,” Watters said.

Because offspring usually return to the same colony for nesting, siblings have the potential of becoming mates – something that can be avoided by their smell mechanism, the new research shows.

Researchers also found that when the birds were exposed to the odours of unfamiliar relatives and unfamiliar non-relatives, they spent more time in the kennels with odours of unfamiliar non-relatives. 

This indicates they were probably able to determine by smell which animals they were related to and were more curious about the novel odours. Researchers said that being able to make the distinction may help the penguins avoid mating with kin.

The discovery also could assist zoos in managing their breeding programs – and may relieve some zoo staff of one of their duties. “It could also be true that birds do a better job determining who potential mates are than do people in zoos, who spend a great deal of time lining up the appropriate matches,” Watters said.

The ability of birds to be able to recognise familiar scents and thus be guided to their home territory also has potential value to naturalists, he added. “You could imagine that if you were trying to reintroduce birds to an area, you could first treat the area with an odour the birds were familiar with. That would make them more likely to stay.”

Bryan D. Neff, professor and associate chair of biology, University of Western Ontario and an expert on kin recognition, said, “What I found particularly notable about the study was that the authors identified the oil secreted from the penguins’ preen gland, which is rubbed on the feathers to make them water repellent, as the odour source used in recognition.

“Oils are used in kin recognition by species of other animals, most notably a variety of insect species, including bees and wasps, which when considered with the penguin data provide a wonderful example of convergent evolution.”

Convergent evolution describes the process of unrelated species having acquired the same biological trait.

Smells may help birds identify their relatives by William Harms, 21 September 2011, UChicago News

PLoS One citation
Odor-based recognition of familiar and related conspecifics: a first test conducted on captive Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti). Coffin HR, Watters JV, Mateo JM (2011) PLoS ONE 6(9): e25002. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025002