The Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) breeds in colonies on the mainland and offshore islands of southern Australia and New Zealand. The distribution of colonies is irregular throughout this area and colony size varies from a few breeding pairs to tens of thousands. Little Penguins forage at sea during the day and return to their nesting colonies at dusk. They are philopatric, returning to their natal (birth) colony to molt every year and to breed (typically producing 2 eggs) at 2 or 3 years of age. However, banding and genetic studies show that dispersal does occur, although infrequently, at least in southeastern Australia. During their first year, juveniles may travel distances of several hundred kilometers and fledglings have been observed migrating to breed at non-natal colonies. Although some pair bonds are maintained across seasons, competition for mates and nest burrows is intense and extra-pair copulations and mate switching occur. Breeding birds live to an average age of 7 years, but several individuals have been known to exceed 20 years in the wild. (Billing et al. 2007 and references therein; Peucker et. al. 2009 and references therein)
Giling et al. (2008) reported on a population of Little Penguins that has nested for many years between boulders on the St, Kilda breakwater in Melbourne, Australia, a city with a population of around 3.5 million humans. Penguins at this site are presumably well protected from predators and have good access to prey, factors that apparently outweigh the detrimental effects of close proximity to humans (although the birds do tend to avoid portions of the site subject to greater human disturbance).
Like most penguins, Little Penguins are small enough that their expected heat loss in cold water would be too rapid for survival without some method of actively reducing this loss. In fact, anatomical studies of the wings and feet of penguins provide evidence of one such adaptation in the form of a countercurrent heat exchange system in which heat from arterial blood is transferred to colder venous blood (similar systems have evolved in other animals, e.g., to regulate heat or gas exchange, and are used by human engineers as well). By having warmer blood running adjacent to cooler blood but in an opposite direction, as the warmer blood cools along its path, it continues to encounter even cooler blood flowing past it in the opposite direction, to which it transfers heat. Thus, warmth is returned to the body instead of being lost to the environment. Thomas and Fordyce (2007) studied the vascular anatomy of the Little Penguin and its inferred (although not directly measured) impact on heat retention.
Eudyptula minor is found throughout the southern coast of Australia and as far north as the South Solitary Island off the coast of New South Wales. They are also native to the coasts of New Zealand.
Eudyptula minor has six recognized subspecies. E. m. novaehollandia is geographically located in Australia. The other five subspecies, E. m. iredaei, E. m. variabilis, E. m. albosignata, E. m. minor, E. m. chathamensis, are distributed around the country of New Zealand.
Biogeographic Regions: australian (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )
- Davis, L., M. Renner. 2003. Penguins. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
- Hoskins, A., P. Dann, Y. Ropert-Coudert, A. Kato, A. Chiaradia, D. Costa, J. Arnould. 2008. Foraging behaviour and habitat selection of the little penguin Eudyptula minor during early chick rearing in Bass Strait, Australia. Marine Ecology-Progress Series, 366: 293-303.
As the smallest penguin in the world, this flightless bird stands at an average height of 30 cm and has a weight of 1.1 to 1.2 kg. It has a black bill with an average length of 35 mm and eyes ranging from silver to blue, grey, and hazel. Its chin and throat are white along with the underside of its flippers and torso. The top of the head, neck and dorsal side of its flippers and torso are an indigo-blue. The color of the penguin’s feathers can become duller with age, and the color of their undersides can range from white to gray to brown. Sexual dimorphism is not pronounced in this species. Males are larger and have longer and deeper bills than females. Males have an average bill length of 35.7 mm and an average bill depth of 15.4 mm. Females have an average bill length of 34.5 mm and an average depth of 14.1 mm. Flipper length is similar in both genders with an average of 117.5 mm.
Juveniles have a dorsal plumage that is a brighter light blue than the indigo-blue of the adults. The juveniles also have thinner and shorter beaks.
Range mass: 1.1 to 1.2 kg.
Average length: 30 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; male larger
- Overeem, R., A. Peucker, C. Austin, P. Dann, C. Burridge. 2008. Contrasting genetic structuring between colonies of the World's smallest penguin, Eudyptula minor. Conservation Genetics, 9/4: 893-905.
- Williams, T. 1995. The Penguins: Spheniscidae. New York: Oxford University Press.
When on land, Eudyptula minor inhabits coastal habitats with good nesting conditions. Little penguins nest in burrows dug in bare sand or under vegetation. If the ground is too soft to hold a burrow, these penguins also nest in caves and rock crevices. Habitats include rocky coastline, savanna, scrub forest or forests. Little penguins are marine seabirds and spend the majority of their lives swimming underwater.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; saltwater or marine
Terrestrial Biomes: chaparral ; scrub forest
Aquatic Biomes: coastal
Other Habitat Features: caves
- Ropert-Coudert, Y., A. Kato, A. Chiaradia. 2009. Impact of small-scale environmental perturbations on local marine food resources: a case study of a predator, the little penguin. Proceedings of The Royal Society, 276: 4105-4109.
Habitat and Ecology
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 39 samples.
Depth range (m): 0 - 0
Temperature range (°C): 19.682 - 20.446
Nitrate (umol/L): 0.079 - 0.092
Salinity (PPS): 35.704 - 35.782
Oxygen (ml/l): 5.140 - 5.145
Phosphate (umol/l): 0.103 - 0.111
Silicate (umol/l): 2.588 - 2.660
Temperature range (°C): 19.682 - 20.446
Nitrate (umol/L): 0.079 - 0.092
Salinity (PPS): 35.704 - 35.782
Oxygen (ml/l): 5.140 - 5.145
Phosphate (umol/l): 0.103 - 0.111
Silicate (umol/l): 2.588 - 2.660
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.
Eudyptula minor is mainly piscivorous and employs a pursuit-diving technique to catch prey in shallow depths. The majority of its diet is composed of Clupeiformes fish, such as anchovies and sardines. The variety of fish consumed depends on the locality of the penguin. This species also preys on small squid, octopi and crustaceans. It has been observed that in recent years the number of prey available is decreasing. This results in longer foraging trips for the penguin, greater energy expenditures, and can ultimately decrease population sizes.
Animal Foods: fish; mollusks; aquatic crustaceans
Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore )
Eudyptula minor plays multiple roles in its ecosystem as a predator and a host to parasites. It preys on small fish, squids, octopi, or occasionally crustaceans and likely impacts these populations. Little penguin eggs and chicks are food sources to local populations of dogs, rats, cats, and other introduced predators. Adult little penguins fall prey to sharks, seals, and orca whales and are a valuable food source to these predators.
- Feather mites (Ingrassia eudyptula)
- Mironov, S., H. Proctor. 2008. The Probable Association of Feather Mites of the Genus Ingrassia (Analgoidea: Xolalgidae) with the Blue Penguin Eudyptula minor (Aves: Sphenisciformes) in Australia. The Journal of Parasitology, 94/6: 1243-1248.
Key predators of little penguins are introduced species. These include dogs, weasels, rats, foxes and cats. Pacific gulls and King's skinks are natural predators that eat the eggs and young of little penguins. In an effort to decrease predation, little penguins move in groups to and from the ocean. This anti-predator technique occurs a few hours before dawn and a few hours after dusk when it is dark. As penguins are less mobile on land, making mass land movements under the cover of darkness is likely another method used to avoid predation. Despite these techniques, adult little penguins often fall prey to sharks, seals, and orca whales.
Life History and Behavior
Eudyptula minor is a nocturnal species and is highly vocal during the night while roosting. The sound of their calls can range from a low rumble to a trumpet-like noise. Their song can be used for several functions, including attracting mates. Each little penguin has a distinctive individual song that is used by parents and siblings to distinguish one another from strangers. Calls can also be used with an aggressive intent against an intruder around a penguin's nest.
Little penguins perform unique courtship displays. Males take a particular stance, with heads facing up and wings back, while braying to females. If the female accepts, she will join the male in a courtship "dance" where they march in circles together and make braying calls.
Like all birds, little penguins perceive their environments through visual, auditory, tactile and chemical stimuli.
Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic
Other Communication Modes: duets
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
- Jouventin, P., T. Aubin. 2000. Acoustic convergence between two nocturnal burrowing seabirds: experiments with a penguin Eudyptula minor and a shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris. Ibis, 142: 645-656.
- Miyazaki, M., J. Waas. 2002. 'Last Word' Effects of Male Advertising Calls on Female Preference in Little Blue Penguins. Behaviour, 139/11-12: 1413-1423.
- Nakagawa, S., J. Waas, M. Miyazaki. 2001. Heart rate changes reveal that little blue penguin chicks (Eudyptula minor) can use vocal signatures to discriminate familiar from unfamiliar chicks. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 50: 180-188.
Little penguins live an average of 6 years. However a banded little penguin has been recaptured the age of 25 years and 8 months old. Data on the lifespan of the bird in captivity could not be found.
Status: wild: 25.6 (high) years.
Status: wild: 6 years.
Courtship begins with male little penguins performing courtship displays and giving mating calls. A male will hold his body in an upright position with flippers above his back, neck stretched, and head upright facing the sky. The male then emits a braying sound. These displays may be performed alone or in a group of unmated males. Occasionally the male will perform in front of a nest he constructed. After a female chooses a male, they perform a display together. One individual stands upright and spreads its flippers with head bowed, which signals the other bird to follow and they walk in small circles around the nest, braying as they go. After this display by male and female, copulation takes place.
Little penguins form monogamous pairs and retention of mated pairs from year to year is high in this species. Pairs are likely to split up only after an unsuccessful nesting attempt or death.
Mating System: monogamous
Little penguins breed from June to October in loose colonies. They may nest in ground burrows, rocky cliffs or caves, where they lay a clutch of 1 to 2 eggs. The eggs are smooth and white in appearance. They have an average weight of 53 g and an average diameter of 42.0 mm. Incubation occurs for 31 to 40 days and the newly hatched chicks are an average weight of 36 to 47 g. The chicks are semi-altricial thus are born with downy feathers, require brooding, are unable to leave the nest, and are unable to feed themselves. After the young hatch, the next 18 to 38 days are termed the "guard period" for penguins during which time both parents brood the young, trading off every 3 to 4 days. After the initial guard period, the parents relax their duties and guard chicks only at night. Fledging occurs when the chick is 50 to 65 days old and at this time it has grown to between 800 g to 1150 g. Juveniles reach full independence at 57 to 78 days old. Most juvenile penguins reach reproductive maturity at 3 years old.
The breeding cycle of Eudyptula minor is variable depending on nesting location and many other environmental factors. Nutrition, age, breeding date can influence the timing of the breeding cycle and nesting success. A lack of nutrition has been shown to delay the breeding process. The probability of breeding success also increases with age. This trend is attributed to the fact that older penguins have more experience, which increases the chance of fledgling survival. Little penguins can lay multiple clutches if the first clutch was a failure or if the adults raised their first fledglings early in the breeding season.
Breeding interval: Little penguins breed once a year, however, they do have the ability to lay an additional clutch.
Breeding season: The breeding season usually occurs from June until December, but may vary geographically.
Range eggs per season: 1 to 2.
Average eggs per season: 2.
Range time to hatching: 31 to 40 days.
Range fledging age: 50 to 65 days.
Range time to independence: 57 to 78 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Both sexes take responsibilities in the breeding process. Both male and female penguins may build their nest together, but the male may have a greater role in physically building the burrow. The female often takes on a larger role in the incubation stage, but the male still helps by exchanging duties with the female every 3 to 4 days. After chicks are born, both parents continue to brood the young during the "guard period." Again, parents swap guarding duties every 3 to 4 days so that one broods the chicks while the other forages. After several weeks, parents decrease guarding time to only at night. Chicks fledge after 50 to 65 days at which time they leave the nest and do not return for several days. Juveniles reach independence from their parents at 57 to 78 days old.
Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)
- Davis, L., M. Renner. 2003. Penguins. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
- Heber, S., K. Wilson, L. Molles. 2008. Breeding biology and breeding success of blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) on the West Coat of New Zealand's South Island. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 35: 63-71.
- Knight, C., T. Rogers. 2004. Factors influencing fledgling production in little penguins. Wildlife Research, 31: 339-344.
- Nisbet, I., I. Dann. 2009. Reproductive performance of little penguins Eudyptula minor in relation to year, age, pair-bond duration, breeding date and individual quality. Journal of Avian Biology, 40/3: 296-308. Accessed February 22, 2010 at http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-048X.2008.04563.x.
- Williams, T. 1995. The Penguins: Spheniscidae. New York: Oxford University Press.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Eudyptula minor
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Eudyptula minor
Public Records: 57
Specimens with Barcodes: 60
Species With Barcodes: 1
Currently Eudyptula minor is not considered to be threatened by extinction. It is believed that the global population of these birds averages around 1,000,000 individuals. Their population is declining, however, due to introduced predators, decreasing populations of prey and oil spills. The intensity of industrial fisheries results in low prey densities for penguins and other piscivores. Factors such as human settlement, coastal erosion, and pollution have also affected the breeding habitats of these birds.
The subspecies E. m. albosignata is now considered endangered. It is only found on the Banks Peninsula on South Island, New Zealand.
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no known effects of little penguins on humans.
The penguin parade of the Eudyptula minor is a popular tourist attraction. It has been recorded that 500,000 tourists annually come to watch the colony of penguins parade to and from the water at Phillip Island.
This specific species is also of great interest to scientists because of their small sizes and the increased amounts of energy needed to survive, especially in cold temperatures. This subject is important in the study of thermoregulation in endotherms, and the penguin's physical characteristics allow scientists to use this penguin in comparisons with other endotherms.
Positive Impacts: ecotourism ; research and education
- Fallow, P., A. Chiaradia, Y. Ropert-Coudert, A. Kato, R. Reina. 2009. Flipper Bands Modify the Short-Term Diving Behavior of Little Penguins. Journal of Wildlife Management, 73/8: 1348-1354.
- Thomas, ., R. Fordyce. 2007. The Heterothermic Loophole Exploited by Penguins. Australian Journal of Zoology, 55/5: 317-321.
The Little penguin (Eudyptula minor) is the smallest species of penguin. It grows to an average of 33 cm (13 in) in height and 43 cm (17 in) in length, though specific measurements vary by subspecies. It is found on the coastlines of southern Australia and New Zealand, with possible records from Chile. In Australia, they are often called Fairy penguins. In New Zealand, they are more commonly known as Little blue penguins or Blue penguins, owing to their slate-blue plumage. They are also known by their Māori name: kororā.
- 1 Taxonomy
- 2 Description
- 3 Distribution and habitat
- 4 Threats
- 5 Behaviour
- 6 Relationship with humans
- 7 Mascots & logos
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The little penguin was first described by German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1781. There are several subspecies but a precise classification of these is still a matter of dispute. The holotypes of the subspecies Eudyptula minor variabilis and Eudyptula minor chathamensis are in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The white-flippered penguin is sometimes considered a subspecies, sometimes a distinct species, and sometimes a morph. As the Australian and Otago (southeastern coast of South Island) little penguins may be a distinct species to which the specific name minor would apply, the white-flippered birds indeed belong to a distinct species, although not exactly as originally assumed.
Mitochondrial and nuclear DNA evidence suggests the split between Eudyptula and Spheniscus occurred around 25 million years ago, with the ancestors of the white-flippered and little penguins diverging about 2.7 million years ago.
Like those of all penguins, the little penguin's wings have developed into flippers used for swimming. The little penguin typically grows to between 30 and 33 cm (12 to 13 inches) tall and usually weighs about 1.5 kilogram on average (3.3 pounds). The head and upperparts are blue in colour, with slate-grey ear coverts fading to white underneath, from the chin to the belly. The flippers are blue. The dark grey-black beak is 3–4 cm long, the irises pale silvery- or bluish-grey or hazel, and the feet pink above with black soles and webbing. An immature individual will have a shorter bill and lighter upperparts.
Distribution and habitat
The little penguin breeds along the entire coastline of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands, and southern Australia (including roughly 20,000 pairs on Babel Island). Australian colonies exist in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. Little penguins have also been reported from Chile (where they are known as Pingüino pequeño or Pingüino azul) (Isla Chañaral 1996, Playa de Santo Domingo, San Antonio, 16 March 1997) and South Africa, but it is unclear whether these birds were vagrants. As new colonies continue to be discovered, rough estimates of the world population are around 350,000-600,000 animals.
Overall, little penguin populations in New Zealand have been decreasing. Some colonies have gone extinct and others continue to be at risk. Some new colonies have been established in urban areas. The species is not considered endangered in New Zealand, with the exception of the white-flippered subspecies found only on Banks Peninsula and nearby Motunau Island. Since the 1960s, the mainland population has declined by 60-70%; though there has been a small increase on Motunau Island.
Australian Little penguin colonies primarily exist on offshore islands where they are protected from feral terrestrial predators and human disturbance. Colonies are found from Port Stephens in northern New South Wales around the southern coast to Fremantle, Western Australia.
New South Wales
An endangered population of Little Penguins exists at Manly, North Sydney Harbor. The population is protected under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and has been managed in accordance with a Recovery Plan since the year 2000. The population once numbered in the hundreds, but has decreased to around 60 pairs of birds. The decline is believed to be mainly due to loss of suitable habitat, attacks by foxes and dogs and disturbance at nesting sites.
The largest colony in New South Wales is on Montague Island. Up to 8000 breeding pairs are known to nest there each year.
Jervis Bay Territory
A population of approximately 5,000 breeding pairs exists on Bowen Island. The colony has increased from 500 pairs in 1979 and 1500 pairs in 1985. During this time, the island was privately leased. The island was vacated in 1986 and is currently controlled by the federal government.
In South Australia, many Little penguin colony declines have been identified across the state. In some cases, colonies have declined to extinction (including the Neptune Islands, West Island, Wright Island, Pullen Island and several colonies on western Kangaroo Island), while others have declined from thousands of animals to few (Granite Island and Kingscote). A report released in 2011 presented evidence supporting the listing of the statewide population or the more closely monitored sub-population from St. Vincent's Gulf as Vulnerable under South Australia's National Parks & Wildlife Act 1974. As of 2014, the Little penguin is not listed as a species of conservation concern, despite ongoing declines at many colonies.
Tasmanian Little penguin population estimates range from 110,000–190,000 breeding pairs of which less than 5% are found on mainland Tasmania. Ever-increasing human pressure is predicted to result in the extinction of colonies on mainland Tasmania.
The largest colony of Little penguins in Victoria is located at Phillip Island, where the nightly 'parade' of penguins across Summerland Beach has been a major tourist destination, and more recently a major conservation effort, since the 1920s. Phillip Island is home to an estimated 32,000 breeding pairs (70,000 birds). Little penguins can also be seen in the vicinity of the St Kilda, Victoria pier and breakwater. The breakwater is home to a colony of little penguins which have been the subject of a conservation study since 1986.
The largest colony of Little penguins in Western Australia is believed to be located on Penguin Island. An estimated 1,000 pairs nest there during the winter. An account of little penguins on Bellinger Island published in 1928 numbered them in their thousands. Visiting naturalists in November 1986 estimated the colony at 20 breeding pairs. The colony's present status is unknown. The account named another substantial colony 12 miles from Bellinger Island and the same distance from Cape Pasley. Little penguins are known to breed on some islands of the Recherche Archipelago, including Woody Island where day-tripping tourists can view the animals.
Threats to little penguin populations include predation (both adult and nest predation) by a variety of terrestrial animals including cats, dogs, rats, foxes, large reptiles, ferrets and stoats. Due to their diminutive size and the introduction of new predators, some colonies have been reduced in size by as much as 98% in just a few years, such as the small colony on Middle Island, near Warrnambool, Victoria, which was reduced from approximately 600 penguins in 2001 to less than 10 in 2005. Because of this threat of colony collapse, conservationists pioneered an experimental technique using Maremma Sheepdogs to protect the colony and fend off would-be predators.
Uncontrolled dogs or feral cats can have sudden and severe impacts on penguin colonies (more than the penguin's natural predators) and may kill many individuals. Examples of colonies impacted by dog attacks include Manly, New South Wales, Penneshaw, South Australia, Red Chapel Beach, Tasmania, Penguin Island, Western Australia and Little Kaiteriteri Beach, New Zealand.
Variation in prey abundance and distribution from year to year causes young birds to be washed up dead from starvation or in weak condition.
Little penguins in the wild are sometimes preyed upon by New Zealand fur seals. A study conducted by researchers from the South Australian Research and Development Institute found that roughly 40 percent of seal droppings in South Australia's Granite Island area contained little penguin remains.
They are also preyed upon by White-bellied sea eagles. These large birds-of-prey are endangered in South Australia and not considered a threat to colony viability.
On land, Little penguins are vulnerable to attack from domestic and feral dogs and cats. Attacks on Kangaroo Island, at Manly in Tasmania and in New Zealand have resulted in significant impacts to several populations. Management strategies to mitigate the risk of attack include establishing dog-free zones near penguin colonies and introducing regulations to ensure dogs to remain on leashes at all times in adjacent areas.
Little penguins on Middle Island in Warrnambool, Victoria were subject to heavy predation by foxes, which were able to reach the island at low tide by a tidal sand bridge. The deployment of Maremma sheepdogs to protect the penguin colony has deterred the foxes and enabled the penguin population to rebound. This is in addition to the support from groups of volunteers who work to protect the penguins from attack at night. The first Maremma sheepdog to prove the concept was Oddball, whose story inspired a feature film of the same name. The film is scheduled for release in 2015.
In Sydney, snipers have been deployed to protect a colony of little penguins. This effort is in addition to support from local volunteers who work to protect the penguins from attack at night.
Interactions with fishing
Some Little penguins are drowned when amateur fishermen set gill nets near penguin colonies. Discarded fishing line can also present an entanglement risk and contact can result in physical injury, reduced mobility or drowning. In 2014, a group of 25 dead Little penguins were found on Altona Beach in Victoria. Necropsies concluded that the animals had died after becoming entangled in net fishing equipment, prompting community calls for a ban on net fishing in Port Phillip Bay.
In the 20th century, Little penguins were intentionally caught by fishermen to use as baits in pots for catching crayfish (Southern rock lobster) or by line fishermen. Colonies targeted for this purpose included Bruny Island, Tasmania and West Island, South Australia.
Oil spills can be lethal for penguins and other sea birds. Oil is toxic when ingested and penguins' buoyancy and the insulative quality of their plumage is damaged by contact with oil. Little penguin populations have been significantly impacted during two major oil spills at sea: the Iron Baron oil spill off Tasmania's north coast in 1995 and the grounding of the Rena off New Zealand in 2011.
Plastics are swallowed by Little penguins, who mistake them for prey items. They present a choking hazard and also occupying space in the animal's stomach. Indigestible material in a penguin's stomach can contribute to malnutrition or starvation. Other larger plastic items, such as bottle packaging rings can become entangled around penguins' necks impacting their mobility.
The impacts of human habitation in proximity to Little penguin colonies include collisions with vehicles, direct harassment, burning and clearing of vegetation and housing development.
Little penguins are diurnal and like many penguin species, spend the largest part of their day swimming and foraging at sea. During the breeding and chick rearing seasons, little penguins will leave their nest at sunrise, forage for food throughout the day and return to their nests just after dusk. Little penguins preen their feathers to keep them waterproof. They do this by rubbing a tiny drop of oil onto every feather from a special gland above the tail.
These birds feed by hunting small clupeoid fishes, cephalopods and crustaceans, for which they travel and dive quite extensively. In New Zealand, important prey items include arrow squid, slender sprat, Graham's gudgeon, red cod and ahuru. Since the year 2000, the Little penguins of Port Phillip Bay's diet has consisted mainly of barracouta, anchovy, and arrow squid. Sardines previously featured more prominently in southern Australian Little penguin diets prior to mass sardine mortality events of the 1990s. These mass mortality events impacted sardine stocks over 5,000 kilometres of coastline.
They are generally inshore feeders. The use of data loggers has provided information of the diving behaviour of little penguins. 50% of their dives go no deeper than 2 m and the mean diving time is 21 seconds. Yet, they are able to dive as deep as 20 m and remained submerged as long as 60 seconds. Little penguins play an important role in the ecosystem as not only a predator to parasites but also a host. Recent studies have shown a new species of feather mite that feeds on the preening oil on the feathers of the penguin.
Little penguins mature at different ages. The female matures at 2 years old. The male, however, matures at 3 years old. Little penguins only remain faithful to their partner in breeding seasons and whilst hatching eggs. At other times of the year they do tend to swap burrows. They exhibit site fidelity to their nesting colonies and nesting sites over successive years.
Little penguins can breed as isolated pairs, in colonies, or semi-colonially. Nests are situated close to the sea in burrows excavated by the birds or other species, or in caves, rock crevices, under logs or in or under a variety of man-made structures including nest boxes, pipes, stacks of wood or timber, and buildings. They are monogamous within a breeding season, and share incubation and chick rearing duties. They are the only species of penguin capable of producing more than one clutch of eggs per breeding season, but few populations do so. The one or two white or lightly mottled brown eggs are laid from July to mid-November, and with rarer second (or even third) clutches beginning as late as December. Incubation takes up to 36 days. Chicks are brooded for 18–38 days, and fledge after 7–8 weeks.
Little penguins typically return to their colonies to feed their chicks at dusk. The birds will tend to come ashore in small groups to provide some defence against predators which might pick off individuals one by one. In Australia, the strongest colonies are usually on cat-free and fox-free islands. However, the population on Granite Island (which is a fox, cat and dog-free island) has been severely depleted, from around 2000 penguins in 2001 down to 146 in 2009.
Relationship with humans
Little penguins have long been a curiosity to humans, and to children in particular. Captive animals are often exhibited in zoos. Historically, the animals have also been used as bait to catch Southern rock lobster, captured for amusement and eaten by ship-wrecked sailors and castaways to avoid starvation. They have also been the victims of malicious attacks by humans and incidental bycatch by fishermen using nets. The sites of many breeding colonies have developed into tourist destinations which provide an economic boost for coastal and island communities in Australia and New Zealand. These locations also often provide facilities and volunteer staff to support population surveys, habitat improvement works and Little penguin research programs.
South of Perth, Western Australia, visitors to Penguin Island are able to view penguins in a natural environment. Less than one hour from the centre of the city, it is possible to see little penguins in all months, including visiting sensitive areas where they remain on land for extended periods for the purposes of moulting.
At Phillip Island, Victoria, a viewing area has been established at the Phillip Island Nature Park to allow visitors to view the nightly "penguin parade". Lights and concrete stands have been erected to allow visitors to see but not photograph the birds interacting in their colony.
In Otago, New Zealand town of Oamaru, where visitors may view the birds returning to their colony at dusk. In Oamaru it is not uncommon for penguins to nest within the cellars and foundations of local shorefront properties, especially in the old historic precinct of the town. More recently, little penguin viewing facilities have been established at Pilots Beach, Otago Peninsula and Dunedin in New Zealand. Here visitors are guided by volunteer wardens to watch penguins returning to their burrows at dusk.
Visitors to Kangaroo Island, South Australia, have nightly opportunities to observe penguins at the Kangaroo Island Marine Centre in Kingscote and at the Penneshaw Penguin Centre. Granite Island at Victor Harbor, South Australia continues to offer guided tours at dusk, despite its colony dropping from thousands in the 1990s to dozens in 2014. There is also a Penguin Centre located on the island where the penguins can be viewed in captivity.
Several efforts have been made to improve breeding sites on Kangaroo Island, including augmenting habitat with artificial burrows and revegetation work. The Knox School's habitat restoration efforts were filmed and broadcast in 2008 by Totally Wild.
A colony of little penguins is also exhibited at Sea World, on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. In early March, 2007, 25 of the 37 penguins died from an unknown toxin following a change of gravel in their enclosure. It is still not known what caused the deaths of the little penguins, and it was decided not to return the 12 surviving penguins to the same enclosure in which the penguins became ill. A new enclosure for the little penguin colony was opened at Sea World in 2008.
Exhibits currently exist at the Auckland Zoo.
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Mascots & logos
Linus Torvalds, the original creator of Linux (a popular operating system kernel), was once pecked by a little penguin while on holiday in Australia. Reportedly, this encounter encouraged Torvalds to select Tux as the official Linux mascot.
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