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 because of their small size. 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.
The little penguin was first described by German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1781. Several subspecies are known, but a precise classification of these is still a matter of dispute. The holotypes of the subspecies E. m. 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.
Genetic analyses indicate that the Australian and Otago (southeastern coast of South Island) little penguins may constitute a distinct species. In this case it the specific name minor would devolve on it, with the specific name novaehollandiae suggested for the other populations; This interpretation suggests that E. novaehollandiae individuals arrived in New Zealand between AD 1500 and 1900 while the local E. minor population had declined, leaving a genetic opening for a new species.
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 and 13 in) tall and usually weighs about 1.5 kg on average (3.3 lb). The head and upper parts are blue in colour, with slate-grey ear coverts fading to white underneath, from the chin to the belly. Their flippers are blue in colour. 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.
Like most seabirds, they have a long lifespan. The average for the species is 6.5 years, but flipper ringing experiments show in very exceptional cases up to 25 years in captivity.
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 a small increase has occurred 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, in Sydney’s North Harbour. 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 about 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 1972. 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.
Little penguin habitats also exist at a number of other locations, including London Arch and The Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road, Wilson’s Promontory and Gabo Island.
The largest colony of little penguins in Western Australia is believed to be located on Penguin Island, where an estimated 1,000 pairs nest during winter. Penguins are also known to nest on Garden Island and Carnac Island which lie north of Penguin Island. Many islands along Western Australia’s southern coast are likely to support little penguin colonies, though the status of these populations are largely unknown. An account of little penguins on published in 1928 numbered them in their thousands. Visiting naturalists in November 1986 estimated the colony at 20 breeding pairs. 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. A penguin colony exists on Mistaken Island in King George Sound near Albany. Historical accounts of little penguins on Newdegate Island at the mouth of Deep River and on Breaksea Island near Torbay also exist.
In 1930 in Tasmania, it was believed that little penguins were competing with mutton-birds, which were being commercially exploited. An “open season” in which penguins would be permitted to be killed was planned in response to requests from members of the mutton-birding industry.
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.
Penguins are vulnerable to interference by humans, especially while they are ashore during molt or nesting periods. In 1949, penguins on Phillip Island in Victoria became victims of human cruelty, with some kicked and others thrown off a cliff and shot at. These acts of cruelty prompted the state government to fence off the rookeries. More recent examples of destructive interference can be found at Granite island, where in 1994 a penguin chick was taken from a burrow and abandoned on the mainland, a burrow containing penguin chicks was trampled and litter was discarded down active burrows. In 1998, two incidents in six months resulted in penguin deaths. The latter, which occurred in May, saw 13 penguins apparently kicked to death. In March 2016, two little penguins were kicked and attacked by humans during separate incidents at the St Kilda colony, Victoria.
In 2018, 20-year-old Tasmanian man Joshua Leigh Jeffrey was fined $82.50 in court costs and sentenced to 49 hours of community service at Burnie Magistrates Court on 25 June 2018 after killing nine little penguins at Sulfur Creek in North West Tasmania on 1 January 2016 by beating them with a stick. Dr Eric Woehler from conservation group Birds Tasmania denounced the perceived leniency of the sentence which he said placed minimal value on Tasmania’s wildlife and set an “unwelcome precedent”. Following an appeal by prosecutors, Jeffrey had his sentence doubled on 15 October 2018. The office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said it considered the original sentence to be manifestly inadequate. The original sentence was set aside, and Jeffrey was sentenced to two months in prison, suspended on the condition of him committing no offences for a year that are punishable by imprisonment. His community order was also doubled to 98 hours.
Also in 2018, a dozen little penguin carcasses were found in a garbage bin at Low Head, Tasmania prompting an investigation into the causes of death.
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 shot or caught by fishermen to use as bait in pots for catching crayfish (Southern rock lobster) or by line fishermen. Colonies were targeted for this purpose in various parts of Tasmania including Bruny Island and West Island, South Australia.
A study in Perth from 2003 to 2012 found that the main cause of mortality was trauma, most likely from watercraft, leading to a recommendation for management strategies to avoid watercraft strikes.
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 affected 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 occupy 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, affecting their mobility.
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 successfully pioneered an experimental technique using Maremma Sheepdogs to protect the colony and fend off would-be predators, with numbers reaching 100 by 2017.
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 affected by dog attacks include Manly, New South Wales, Penneshaw, South Australia, , Tasmania, Low Head, Tasmania, Penguin Island, Western Australia and , New Zealand.
A suspected stoat or ferret attack at Doctor’s Point near Dunedin, New Zealand claimed the lives of 29 little blue penguins in November 2014.
A fox was believed responsible for the deaths of 53 little penguins over several nights on Granite Island in 1994. In June 2015, 26 penguins from the Manly colony were killed in 11 days. A fox believed responsible was eventually shot in the area and an autopsy is expected to prove or disprove its involvement. In November 2015 a fox entered the little penguin enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo and killed 14 penguins, prompting measures to further “fox proof” the enclosure.
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 long-nosed 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 off 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, released in 2015. In December 2015, the BBC reported, “The current dogs patrolling Middle Island are Eudy and Tula, named after the scientific term for the fairy penguin: Eudyptula. They are the sixth and seventh dogs to be used and a new puppy is being trained up […] to start work in 2016.
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.
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 leave their nest at sunrise, forage for food throughout the day and return to their nests just after dusk. Thus, sunlight, moonlight and artificial lights can affect the behaviour of attendance to the colony. Also, increased wind speeds negatively affect the little penguins’ efficiency in foraging for chicks, but for reasons not yet understood. 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 fish, 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 affected sardine stocks over 5,000 kilometres of coastline. Jellyfish including species in the genera Chrysaora and Cyanea were found to be actively sought-out food items, while they previously had been thought to be only accidentally ingested. Similar preferences were found in the Adélie penguin, yellow-eyed penguin and Magellanic penguin.
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 incubating 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 timing of breeding seasons varies across the species’ range. Eastern Australian populations (including at Phillip Island, Victoria) lay their eggs from July through December. In South Australia’s Gulf St. Vincent, eggs are laid between April and October.
The one or two white or lightly mottled brown eggs are laid with rarer second (or even third) clutches following. Incubation takes up to 36 days. Chicks are brooded for 18–38 days and fledge after 7–8 weeks. On Australia’s east coast, chicks are raised from August through March. In Gulf St. Vincent, chicks are raised from June through November.
Little penguins typically return to their colonies to feed their chicks at dusk. The birds 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.
Little penguin tourism
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 or film the birds (this is because it can blind or scare them) interacting in their colony.
In Bicheno, Tasmania, evening penguin viewing tours are offered by a local tour operator at a rookery on private land. A similar sunset tour is offered at Low Head, near the mouth of the River Derwent on Tasmania’s north coast. Observation platforms exist near some of Tasmania’s other little penguin colonies, including Bruny Island and Lillico Beach near Devonport.
South of Perth, Western Australia, visitors to Penguin Island are able to view penguin feeding within a penguin rehabilitation centre and may also encounter wild penguins ashore in their natural habitat. The island is accessible via a short passenger ferry ride, and visitors depart the island before dusk to protect the colony from disturbance.
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.
In the Otago, New Zealand town of Oamaru, 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 on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, New Zealand. Here visitors are guided by volunteer wardens to watch penguins returning to their burrows at dusk.
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.
Exhibits currently exist at the Adelaide Zoo, Melbourne Zoo, the National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra, Perth Zoo, Caversham Wildlife Park (Perth), Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.
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, the Wellington Zoo and the National Aquarium of New Zealand.
A colony of little blue penguins exists at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. The penguins are one of three species on exhibit and are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums‘ Species Survival Plan for little blue penguins.Little penguins in the wild calling, Dunedin, New Zealand
Problems playing this file? See media help.Little penguin calls at the St Kilda Breakwater, Victoria, Australia
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Mascots and 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.
A Linux kernel programming challenge called the Eudyptula Challenge has attracted thousands of persons; its creator(s) use the name “Little Penguin”.
Penny the Little Penguin was the mascot for the 2007 FINA World Swimming Championships held in Melbourne, Victoria.
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