06 November 2016

The habits of highly effective penguins

Little penguin. Credit: Massey University
NEW ZEALAND – Researchers from Massey University and the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony are working together to improve conservation of little penguins by uncovering the characteristics of a successful penguin.

The researchers will measure penguins' responses to handling and see how these responses are related to breeding success, foraging behaviour and other features of their biology.

They will conduct the research at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony and nearby Oamaru Creek Penguin Refuge, which have more than 300 breeding pairs of little penguins.

The team includes Massey Professor John Cockrem and one of New Zealand’s leading little blue penguin scientists, Dr Philippa Agnew from the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. They will be aided by Massey master's students Henry Elsom, Shelley Ogle, Kelly Long and Rachel Choi.

Professor Cockrem described the work with Dr Agnew as an exciting chance to combine penguin corticosterone studies with the Colony's long-term breeding data.

“Penguins secrete the steroid hormone corticosterone to help them adjust to short-term changes in their environment. We will study corticosterone responses in adults, and see how responses develop in chicks,” he said.

Once the data is collected, the team will look at individual differences in foraging and diving and prey capture behaviour, and look to determine if the behaviours are related to differences in corticosterone responses.

“Corticosterone and behavioural responses of birds to environmental stimuli are linked, with consistent individual responses known as personalities,” Professor Cockrem said.

“Birds that are highly responsive are said to have a reactive personality and birds that have relatively smaller responses are said to have proactive personalities. We are interested in relationships between the different personalities and lifetime breeding success in the penguins.”

Outcomes of the project will include knowledge of the biology of little penguins that can be applied to the conservation of penguins, and joint publications between Massey University and the Colony. The projects being conducted by the students continue and extend the collaborative studies that Professor Cockrem and Dr Agnew began in 2012.

“Training New Zealand’s future scientists is an important role,” Dr Philippa Agnew said.

“We are pleased to be able to provide assistance and the use of our facility to do so. I have very much enjoyed working with Professor Cockrem and his students.

“Henry, Shelley, Kelly and Rachel are all very capable and have successfully taken on the task of handling and sampling little penguins which, being wild animals, can sometimes be quite challenging.”

Additional work is being undertaken with Dr Agnew to guide penguins to use a new underpass that has been constructed so the penguins no longer have to cross a road.

Tourism Waitaki general manager Jason Gaskill welcomes the relationship with Massey and Dr Agnew.

“The scientific credentials and reputation of the colony she has spearheaded through relationships such as these reinforces the fact that recognised scientific rigour can comfortably coexist within a commercial framework, which is good for all involved,” he said.

The habits of highly effective penguins [press release], 1 November 2016, Massey University

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