Fiordland Penguins: How far would you go for your food?
by Sian Liversage
We usually think of penguins surrounded by icebergs and snow, but in the depths of the rainforests of New Zealand is one of the world’s rarest penguin species – the Fiordland Penguin, a member of the crested group of penguins. New Zealand Maori call it Tawaki.
First, some facts and information about Fiordland Penguins
These birds have chosen to ignore the penguin stereotype in favour of the southwestern coast lines of the South Island, as well as Stewart, Codfish and Solander islands. They seem to have chosen a secluded life, and are known to be very secretive, mainly because they nest in dense bush, caves, rock crevasses, tree logs and roots. This, combined with the areas in which they live, being notoriously hard to reach, therefore hinder efforts to determine their exact population size, the threats they face, and their behaviours.
How many Fiordland Penguins are there?
The current population estimate is between 5,000-7,000 individual Fiordland Penguins, making them Nationally Vulnerable, and it is presumed that this figure is on the decline. The warming of the oceans, tourism and fisheries are highly likely to have an effect on the penguins, but effects on their lives still need to be studied scientifically.
So far, there has been very little research on Fiordland Penguins
Only a handful of studies have been conducted on these birds in the last 40 years, with the most comprehensive one being carried out in the 1970s. Despite the difficulties of doing so, 5 years ago a team of scientists launched the first long-term study to be conducted in order to try to understand these allusive penguins.
Their most recent 2018 study discovered and impressed researchers with the lengths at which individuals will go to in order to find food. The aim of the study was to learn more about their migration habits after breeding. Once penguin chicks have fledged, the adults need to pack on the weight in preparation for their annual moult. This annual moult is called a “catastrophic moult”, where they lose and regrow their feathers all at once over a period of 3 weeks. This takes up a lot of energy and stops them from being able to hunt for prey.
So, during this critical weight gaining period, they need to ensure they have enough body fat to make it through the feather moulting stage. The researchers originally assumed that because the birds live and breed on the New Zealand mainland, they wouldn’t travel far to hunt.
Fiordland Penguins travel extremely far for their food!
Nevertheless, this assumption was thrown out of the water when researchers fitted GPS satellite trackers to 20 birds, with the aim of tracking their movements in real time. They discovered that they swam to the Auckland Islands, carried onto Macquarie Island, and then ended up halfway to Antarctica within a couple of weeks. A record was set by the champion of the group who swam almost 7000 kilometres in two months! This was a surprising outcome, given the limited time they have between the end of the breeding season in December and the onset of the annual feather moult in February. Researchers concluded that they think this behaviour could be down to instinct rather than actual necessity. Oceanic productivity reaches its peak during this period, so it appears unlikely that food limitation was the driving force of this behaviour.
Further on from this study, the researchers are now keen to discover more about where they go, this time during the non-breeding season, where they spend months foraging out at sea. Small tracking devices will be attached to their legs and will stay on the bird for a whole year. This is the first time this sort of research is being done, so it will paint a significant picture of where they travel throughout the year. With years of data recorded, the researchers are gradually unravelling the secret life of the Fiordland Penguin. These birds spend 80% of their lives at sea, so it is hoped that this newfound knowledge will contribute towards the protection of these mysterious penguins.
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- Mattern, T; Ellenberg, U. 2018. The Tawaki Project. p6 Open Access Journal PLOS One.
- Newshub. 2018. Webpage: https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2018/08/scientists-discover-insane-lengths-fiordland-crested-penguins-go-for-food.html
- RNZ News. 2018. Webpage: https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/ourchangingworld/audio/2018624228/tawaki-the-mysterious-forest-penguin