Fears for Little Penguins as deaths spike

February 28, 2012

There are concerns for the long-term survival of Perth’s Little Penguin population after deaths reached four times the normal level in the second half of 2011.

Murdoch University’s Research Associate, Dr Belinda Cannell, first noticed a spike in penguin deaths in September.

“Members of the public and Department of Environment and Conservation staff found dead penguins between Safety Bay and the mouth of the Donnelly River as well as on Penguin Island,” Dr Cannell said.

“Between 2006 and 2010 we found an average of 12 dead birds in the second half of the year, but in 2011 we found 49.”

The main reason for their deaths was starvation most likely caused by high sea temperatures.

“High sea surface temperatures are linked to the strong La Nina conditions and a strong Leeuwin current in the summer of 2010 and 2011,” Dr Cannell said.

“This ‘marine heat wave’ probably led to a decline in the fish stocks that the Little Penguins rely on for food.

“Other deaths have been caused by marine craft. We’ve found penguins with severed feet, cuts across their back and broken necks.”

Some penguins have also died from overheating. Predictions for climate change in the South-West of Australia, meaning warming temperatures and less rain, could result in increased deaths.

“Penguins moult in the summer and without their waterproof feathers they can’t leave the island,” she said.

“If penguins lay their eggs later in the year, their chicks will be in the nests in November to January and are also at risk of death from overheating.”

With the spike in deaths Dr Cannell fears there will be reduction in the size of the Little Penguin colony and and its long-term existence.

“Not only did we see an increase in dead birds, but breeding was also very poor in 2011,” she said.

The Little Penguins found at Penguin Island and Garden Island are at the most northern extent of their range in Western Australia.

“The penguins in Perth are quite unique compared to other Little Penguin colonies, so it is vital we understand the various pressures they face in order to protect them,” Dr Cannell said.

More research funding is required to find out where the penguins forage, what their diet consists of and how food stocks are affected by major changes in ocean conditions and coastal developments such as boat ramps and marinas.

Members of the public can also do their bit to help the Little Penguins.

“It’s important that members of the public report any dead penguins they see on the foreshores from Perth to Dunsborough,” Dr Cannell said.

“Dead penguins should be reported to a DEC ranger – they can either be delivered to a DEC office or a ranger can pick them up.

“Many penguins are microchipped so we can retrieve important information if the deaths are reported.

“If the penguin is badly decomposed but has a metal band around its flipper, we encourage people to remove it and send it to the Australian Government’s Bird and Bat Banding Office, along with the date and details of where it was found.”

Dr Cannell is also keen for boaters and fishermen to report the location of any penguins they see in the ocean.

“I can’t attach satellite tags to all the penguins, so this is a great way of building up an understanding of the areas that penguins use,” she said.

Anyone wishing to report the location of penguins at sea should contact Dr Belinda Cannell on B.Cannell@murdoch.edu.au.

Watch this video to find out about penguin feeding habits and how we impact on their survival.

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