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.
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!
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.
‘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.
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.
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 (email@example.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.