penguins

A small penguin in a big pond

Imagine you’re sitting on the beach, contemplating the sun merging with the horizon before disappearing with lingering traces of orange and pink in surrounding clouds. You can feel the light wind on your face, enjoy the smell of the ocean and the sound of the waves relentlessly crashing against the shore. While you’re lost in your thoughts, little creatures close to shore are focussed on getting ready for the challenge they face every night: making it back to their burrow in one piece. Snapping out of your contemplation, you notice the groups of penguins - called rafts - that are forming in the water in front of you to benefit from safety in numbers. As they get closer, you hear their squawking calls, which will get louder and louder as the penguins come back ashore. Finally, darkness is upon them and they are one step closer to being home, safe and sound in their burrows. One brave penguin decides it’s time to go, carefully navigates a wave, gets carried back to shore and lands there. Others soon follow and form small groups that will start their nightly procession and march – or rather waddle – back to their homes. This is the universe Ken Stepnell’s book will immerse you in, the universe of the world’s smallest penguin, without the need to get wet.

Image: New Holland Publishers

Image: New Holland Publishers

Stepnell uses simple language and well-chosen illustrations to depict the life of these ‘perfect swimming machines’ in his book entitled Little Penguins: Exploring the Life of the World’s Smallest Penguin. Little Penguins are the only penguin species that lives and breeds on the southern coast of Australia, and they are also found across New Zealand. In fact, in both of these places, they attract quite a lot of tourists, as these are the only locations in the world where Little Penguins can be observed on their way back to their burrow after an active day at sea. They display remarkable adaptations to exploit the marine environment, but also to get by on land. The book is packed with interesting facts about their lives, and will satisfy the curiosity of anyone who wants to know more about these ‘good little divers’ – literally the meaning of Eudyptula, the genus in which Little Penguins are classified.

Stepnell starts by introducing the penguin family, which comprises 17 to 20 species of sea-going birds, depending on the classification used. These birds live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere and have evolved to live in very harsh environments, such as Antarctica. In his first chapter, Stepnell describes general features shared by these atypical creatures – birds that do not fly! – before introducing Little Penguins. Ever wondered if penguins have knees? Read this book to find out! 

The African Penguin - one of the other 17 to 20 penguin species.  Image: Elodie Camprasse

The African Penguin - one of the other 17 to 20 penguin species. Image: Elodie Camprasse

In the second chapter ‘Vital statistics’, Stepnell elaborates on the unique adaptations Little Penguins have developed to cope with their environment. In this part, the reader learns that Little Penguins have glands above their eyes to concentrate the ingested salt that will then be excreted through the nostrils; that they have a third eyelid to keep their eyes clean; and that their very rigid and streamlined flippers are the reasons why they can ‘fly underwater’ so gracefully. On land, however, they use their sturdy feet and sharp claws to walk and climb.

The third chapter, ‘The lives of little penguins’, describes crucial activities for Little Penguins such as feeding, travelling and moulting. Ever wondered how and when Little Penguins catch their dinner? While you have it easy and can simply drive to the supermarket and pick up whatever you fancy, Little Penguins face the challenge of finding mobile food in the immensity of the ocean. Relying on results from scientific studies, Stepnell tells the reader how they go about doing just that.

The fourth chapter, ‘The mating game’, is dedicated to the way Little Penguins do what is one of the most important things animals are programmed to do: pass on their genes to the next generation. Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Here, the reader learns about how male penguins build burrows and stand outside them, calling in the hope of impressing the ladies; how many eggs a pair can lay and when; how penguins manage to keep their eggs warm; and how the chicks are fed. Want to know how often penguins divorce? You’ll find the answer in this chapter. 

Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young.  Image: New Holland Publishers

Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Image: New Holland Publishers

If you want to know how often penguins divorce, then this book is for you.  Image: New Holland Publishers

If you want to know how often penguins divorce, then this book is for you. Image: New Holland Publishers

‘Threats and conservation’ focuses on the causes of population declines, which include natural and introduced predators, disturbances by humans, climate change, and pollution, to name but a few. Even though Little Penguins are not globally threatened, some populations have clearly been declining.

If Little Penguins has made you want to experience the life of these creatures for yourself and observe them in their natural environment, then read the last chapter of the book to find out where to go. Although giving an exhaustive list of suitable locations would be rather lengthy and was not the purpose of the book, the reader will find out about the most significant viewing opportunities throughout Australia and New Zealand.

There are various locations in Australia and New Zealand where people can admire these fascinating birds in their natural habitat.  Image: New Holland Publishers

There are various locations in Australia and New Zealand where people can admire these fascinating birds in their natural habitat. Image: New Holland Publishers

As a researcher studying penguins, I was excited to review this book and learn new facts. I would have liked to read more details on some of the adaptations described, as well as more results from the scientific literature with more up-to-date information. Nevertheless, Stepnell’s succinct style makes this book suitable for both adults and kids who want to find out more about the world’s smallest penguin.     

Purchase your copy of Little Penguins from New Holland Publishers.


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Elodie Camprasse

Elodie came to Australia where she recently completed a PhD in seabird ecology at Deakin University, after studying marine biology in Europe. She is passionate about the natural world and its protection. She is also a dive instructor and Emergency Response Operator at Wildlife Victoria.

You can find her on Twitter at @ECamprasse.


Banner image courtesy of JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Public Perception: An Evening in an Urban Penguin Colony

‘There – is that one? I can hear something.’

’I can’t see anything yet. Anyway, how is this even a thing? Did you know this was here?’
Image: http://stkildapenguins.com.au

Image: http://stkildapenguins.com.au

Talking to visitors, you’d think the establishment of a penguin colony in one of inner Melbourne’s more popular waterfronts was a new and novel thing. But the curving pile of the St Kilda Pier breakwater has been host to the little penguin (Eudyptula minor) since at least 1974, when the first permanent breeding pairs were documented.[1] Anecdotes place them on site even earlier, with fishermen sighting penguins stopping on the rocks only two years after the breakwater’s construction for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. It’s well known amongst ecologists that the little penguins of Victoria’s south coast and Phillip Island enjoy the high food availability and sheltered waters of Port Phillip Bay; the only surprise in some having established a colony was how quickly they did it.

From just two pioneering nesting sites the colony now has over 1000 birds, although there could be as many as 1400. For tourists and locals alike, it’s an excellent chance to see a large population of a species adapting to the urban environment. While conservationists more often see negative effects from dense human infrastructure – such as changing daily rhythms caused by light pollution or behaviour shifting to accommodate the noise and rush of cities – some species persist, making use of their surroundings and benefiting from the changes humans have made. The little penguins of St Kilda have been found to spend a good deal of their foraging time in the shipping channels of the bay, using the artificial formations to corral their prey. However, inhabiting an area of heavy traffic also means exposure to oil and pollutants, and concerns are still raised over access to the part of the colony not fenced off from public access.

A three-week-old penguin chick at the St Kilda colony.   Image: http://stkildapenguins.com.au/

A three-week-old penguin chick at the St Kilda colony.

Image: http://stkildapenguins.com.au/

During the long hours of summer, evenings on the breakwater promenade are punctuated by the fluoro yellow vests of Earthcare St. Kilda volunteers. Aside from checking that everyone is behaving as they should, one of the goals of the group is to raise awareness and appreciation for the little penguins. Red-filtered torches in hand, they answer questions and point out the best spots to wait for those foraging penguin parents to swim ashore.

See that V-ripple in the water, between the yachts? Get ready to spot!

Inner-city residents around the world have been found to feel separated from their country’s natural landscape, the places beyond the ring roads. It’s a feeling among the St Kilda volunteers that, by helping people to see that there is a more appropriate way to appreciate the animals cohabiting our urban spaces, this perceived separation between the human and the wild can be closed a little further. By fostering that fascination, we can help move toward a more understanding society and a more considered discussion on conserving our green spaces.

Of course, this fascination with our more charismatic cohabitants doesn’t always have the best results. During the early and mid-20th century, little penguin rookeries on the Summerland Peninsula of Phillip Island were facing pressure from increased visitors and new housing developments. Tourism advertisements from the period promote the evening penguin march as a must-see attraction, and photographs show that avoiding disruption was a low priority. Already at risk from foxes and dogs, the stress and habitat disturbance from the human presence led to the state government partitioning the little penguins in dedicated reserves.  

An early 20th Century photograph of 'Penguin Beach' on Phillip Island.  Image: State Library of Victoria

An early 20th Century photograph of 'Penguin Beach' on Phillip Island. Image: State Library of Victoria

The 1920s saw the first crowds of tourists viewing the penguin parade by torchlight.    Image:   http://www.penguins.org.au

The 1920s saw the first crowds of tourists viewing the penguin parade by torchlight. 

Image: http://www.penguins.org.au

Even after the creation and subsequent expansion of the beachfront reserves, habitat fragmentation from the housing developments was still found to be too disruptive. In the 1980s, a land buyback program began with the aim of removing all permanent residences and infrastructure, returning the whole peninsula to as pristine a condition as possible[6]. In this instance, the separation of human and wild spaces was necessary.

So, what does this mean for colonies like the St Kilda penguins? An increasing human population and an increasing shift toward urbanization mean that cities will be growing larger in the future. Animals that fail to adjust will be edged out, and not just geographically – without their physical presence as a reminder, there’s a risk that planning departments will simply forget about them.

Animals persisting in urban spaces - such as beachside penguins, rooftop falcons, or bats in the Botanic Gardens - remind us that we still exist in and are still part of the natural world. Partial separation keeps a reservoir of the population safe; those out in the open remind us of what we could lose.

‘Look there, that one’s getting fed! By that saltbush, can you see?’

’Oh. They vomit into its mouth? Gross.’

 

Banner image of Phillip Island Penguin Parade is courtesy of penguins.org.au

[1] Eades D (1975) Fairy penguins (Eudyptula minor) breeding on St Kilda Pier. Bird Observer 519:12


Paul Jones

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.

Science Shorts: Little Penguins

This month, Wild Melbourne was lucky enough to speak with Associate Professor Richard Reina from Monash University about his research on Phillip Island's iconic Little Penguin population.  

Wild Melbourne's Chris McCormack, joined Richard down at the Phillip Island Nature Park, where he was told all about the expansive, long-term research that has been carried out on what is one of Australia's most well-known wildlife populations. The history of the Phillip Island Nature Park is an exciting one, and can lay claim to being one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world.  Land reclamation of the peninsula has been ongoing since the 1980's and has now been completed, leaving a huge area free for penguin nesting and a huge legacy for our Victorian community to cherish. 

Together with colleague Dr Andre Chiaradia, Richard has discovered much about the ecology of little penguins, and notably, the role they can play as indicators of change in the marine environment. Andre was the first to install weigh-bridges at the colony during his PhD in the 1990's, a device which continues to yield valuable information about individually micro-chipped penguins as they come and go from their nests.  The pair have co-supervised countless students and are ever on the look out to further our knowledge of our marine ecosystems through these iconic, and adorable sea birds. 

Following his conversation with Richard and Andre, Chris set out to follow Wild Melbourne colleague and PhD student Cathy Cavallo, along with fellow student Sonia Sanchez, as they went about monitoring the nesting population of penguins. Together, these two young marine scientists look set to shed light on a number of interesting questions about the penguins and their connection with our marine environment, and we look forward to hearing more from them in the future. 

Wild Melbourne would like to thank Richard, Andre, and the entire team down at the Phillip Island Nature Park, for allowing us to get a glimpse of the amazing science and conservation work happening just a few hours from Melbourne's CBD.

You can get around more of their science stories by following them on twitter: (Richard Reina, Cathy Cavallo, Phillip Island NP


We interview Associate Professor Richard Reina of Monash University about his team's research on Phillip Island's Little Penguins.


We join two of Richard Reina's PhD students as they monitor Phillip Island's Little Penguin population.