09 July 2014

Helping Happy Feet


This blog post was written by postgraduate student Vanessa Mander as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol608). Vanessa revisits a Lincoln University research area that looks at Little Penguin biology published in 2011.

An excerpt from an email stream of fictional conservation ecologist Lucy Bird

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Hi Lucy,
I was given your name by a friend as someone who could help me. I was wondering how I could help boost the breeding of the local population of those whitish-blue penguin things. We like them a lot. Ta.
Cheers,
Concerned Citizen (Banks Peninsula, Canterbury)
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Hi Concerned Citizen,
Thanks for getting in contact; we are always on the look out for fresh volunteers. I have been reading this great paper recently called “Factors affecting breeding success of the Flea Bay white-flippered penguin(Eudyptula minor albosignata) colony” written by a Lincoln University honours student Warwick Allen, his supervisor Laura Molles and conservationist Francis Helps. I believe it will really help you get to grips with this topic. I suggest you read the whole thing but in the meantime I’ll give you the highlights. Let me indulge by giving you a little background into your whitish-blue penguins.

White-flippered penguins. Copyright 2007
Used with permission from Shirleen Helps
White-flippered penguins are found only on Banks Peninsula and Motunau Island and are a variant of our more commonly known blue penguin. Blue penguins have colonies throughout New Zealand and the southern coast of Australia (where they are known as the fairy penguin). They are the smallest penguin species in the world.

The statistics worldwide make for depressing reading. Many blue penguin populations are in decline; for example, in Bank Peninsula there has been losses from 4 monitored colonies over the last 30 years. There are a variety of factors in play, some of which lie squarely on the shoulders of human kind. We encroach on their habitat by building houses, sightseeing and discharging waste, which causes stress amongst existing bird colonies and in some cases, killing them. Other human impacts include overfishing, becoming roadkill and the introduction of mammalian predators (thanks to our forefathers). These predators include ferrets, stoats, cats and rats to name a few and they all predate birds and eggs alike. More on those little critters later. There are some natural events that also have negative effects on local populations. For example, the El Nino-La Nina effect, which can sometimes be responsible for the disruption of fish supplies.

Now for a bit of good news. In Warwick's paper, he suggests that a few colonies of white-flippered penguins are now steadily increasing and we are studying these as there is often valuable information about such colonies that will help boost populations elsewhere, possibly even in other penguin species.

Shirleen Helps feeding the chicks. Copyright 2011
 Used with permission from Shirleen Helps
Francis and Shirleen Helps are active conservationists and they own a slice of paradise in Flea Bay (Pohatu) on Banks Peninsula. Since 1996, they have been monitoring and collecting information about the colony of white-flippered penguins that are breeding there. They are a tirelessly dedicated couple who have spent considerable time, money and effort in implementing an active pest management regime and have installed nest boxes around the bay for use by the colony. Warwick (with the help of his supervisor Laura Molles) collated the Help's data gold mine to look at what conditions, both behavioural and environmental, are important to our flippered friends to produce a bumper crop of healthy, happy fledglings.


Three things really stood out as indicators of a more successful breeding season:

1. Longer guard lengths: This means that both of the parents took turns to watch over and feed their young and the longer they looked after their young, the better the outcomes for those chicks. If you think about it, this makes sense. A bird can only guard and feed their chick if they, themselves are in good condition. So its a trade off between looking after their chicks and looking after themselves. The better condition the parents are in, then the more care and attention they could give to their progeny. Also this might be an indicator of good foraging - more food for the chicks!

2. Later lay date: If the egg is laid later in the season then it is likely the adults have had extra time to forage and gorge themselves to a point where they are in better condition to look after their young. An additional positive is the idea that warmer temperatures later in the season contributed to better incubation of the eggs and therefore the hatchling has a good start in life.

3. Short pair bond lengths: This is just where the adults have split up and formed new bond a with another mate. This finding is quite interesting because you would assume that if a pair have been together for several seasons that this would lead to a more successful breeding season. But the opposite appear to be true. This might be because they are vying for the best nest-boxes or burrows and that necessitates a different pairing. It would be great if someone looked further into this one to see why this is the case.

Other anecdotal evidence also points to having intensive pest management strategies help to protect the colony. Predator traps (for those small mammals that might think penguin chicks and eggs are meals) have almost eliminated predation in the Flea Bay chicks. The authors of the paper also thought the quality of the nest boxes and natural burrows might make a difference too.

Pohatu - Flea Bay. Copyright 2007
Used with permission from Shirleen Helps
So now that we know all that, how can we use it to change the fortunes for all penguins? The most important information from this study is that intensive and active pest management regimes decrease chick and adult mortality, which in turn provides more breeding pairs for subsequent years. For these management systems to work they need to be actively monitored. It helps a lot if they can gain robust funding and be implemented by many dedicated volunteers like the Helps family of Flea Bay.

I hope this useful and if you wanted to volunteer for a few hours then I can put you in touch with the local coordinator. Let me know how you get on.

Kind regards,
Lucy Bird
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Hi Lucy,
Me again, that was some awesome stuff you got there. I think I’ve got it covered. I've decided to go into the pet stoat business and they will definitely benefit from all this great research.
Cheers,
CC
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Dear CC,
Excuse me? Can I assume that “pet” is just a typo and you meant “pest” right?  So, you're selling pelts? 
Confused,
Lucy
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Hey Lucy,
Not quite, I’ve been looking at this place being overrun with these little stoat friends and thought they looked quite cute and cuddly. Surely people would like them as pets, so I might as well share them since there are plenty of them here. If I breed them then there will be plenty more to sell. They are a bit feisty and have a great appetite but they don’t complain. They've really taken a shining to those white-flippered penguins you were talking about.
CC
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To Mr Citizen,
Are you serious? You have a very obvious stoat issue and I’m compelled reply. Although I am not advocating for this information to be used for anything other than sound scientific and conservational research, I do think you ought to discuss your current situation with the Department of Conservation. They will be more than happy to educate you on the legalities of stoat ownership. Stoats are a horrendous problem in New Zealand, with no known predators. They are responsible for the decimation of many kinds of native wildlife including our magnificent white-flippered penguins. I suggest you re-read the first email I wrote to you, slowly, and if you wish to put smiles on the faces of the public then I would recommend you change tact and undertake EXTENSIVE predator control or spend time conserving something worthwhile. I have taken the opportunity to pass your details to the appropriate people and you will be hearing from them in due course. I advise that you click on the following links to start you on your way.


LB.
P.S. Please refrain from contacting me in future.
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Note: Any depiction to any person in this blog, living or dead is purely coincidental, with the exception of Francis and Shirleen Helps, Warwick Allen and Laura Molles… all real people. No penguins (or stoats) were harmed in the making of this blog.

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