Critter Of The Week #15 : Little Blue Penguin

When we think of penguins, we often imagine the tall king and emperor penguins nestled together in the frozen landscape of Antarctica.Yet, 1,000 miles north resides the tiniest of all penguins, aptly named the little penguin or little blue penguin, standing just 12 inches tall. They actually go by several other names such as fairy penguin, blue penguin, and the Maori of New Zealand call them korora.

As their namesake suggests, they have blue coloration on their backside with a white ventral surface. This type of coloration is called countershading so predators from below have a harder time spotting them against the bright sky underwater, and they also are harder to spot from above against the deep blue of the ocean.
Standing only 1 foot tall on average and weighing around 3 to 6 pounds puts them at the smallest end of the penguin spectrum. Compare that to the emperor penguin we are all familiar with which stands 3 feet tall and weighs around 70 pounds!
They are also surprisingly long lived, and captive individuals have lived up to 25 years!

Scientific Classification

Kingdom : Animalia

Phylum : Chordata

Class : Aves                 

Order : Sphenesciformes

Family : Spheniscidae

Genus: Eudyptula

 

Number of Different Species : 1

Little Blue Penguin :  Eudyptula minor

 

Conservation Status :  

Colugo Conservation Status
"Least concern" means their population has been counted, but they are not in imminent danger of extinction. 
 

Range :  

Little penguins are found on the southeastern shores of Australia, all over the beaches of Tasmania, and New Zealand.

Habitat :  

Little penguins inhabit the coastal waters around their native range. They will come to shore to nest and molt their feathers.

Diet : 

 

Little penguins, like all penguins, are carnivores and subsist on a diet of small fish, shrimp, and a tiny crustacean made famous by Hollywood : krill. 

 

These tiny shrimp roam the oceans in huge numbers and are the same food many whale species, like the blue whale, feed on.

 

 

Reproduction :  

 

Breeding season varies across the different areas little penguins live. Eastern Australian populations lay their eggs from July through December. In South Australia's breeding season, eggs are laid between April and October.

 

After mating, the female lays either one or two and sometimes three white or brown spotted eggs roughly the size of a large goose egg.

 

 

 

The eggs will incubate for about 1 month and hatch. Newly hatched chicks are barely larger than a baby chicken and hidden safely in burrows the parents have built deep underground, within caves, or rock crevices. Both parents will go to sea and return at dusk to feed the chicks. 

 

 

 

In about 2 months time, the chicks will fledge. Male penguins reach breeding age around 3 while females are a little less at 2 years of age.

 

Relationship with humans :

 

Little penguins are not hunted in modern times by humans, yet still face a variety of threats in their daily lives. 

 

Australia and New Zealand never had any land-based mammal carnivores except the Tasmanian tiger and a few other marsupial predators. This means  that for thousands of years, little penguins were safe on the beaches. 

 

When Europeans arrived, they brought foxes, cats, and dogs with them that are now the main threat to little blue penguins.

 

Fishing is another dangerous activity for the tiny birds, as they are caught as by-catch in the shrimping industry.  So it is better to buy farm-raised shrimp if you live in Southern Australia or New Zealand.

 

Otherwise, the population is declining yet still healthy overall. There are about 350,000 little penguins and they are a protected species in both countries. 

 

Today, in some areas you can view the penguins in the wild at the Penguin Parade at Phillip Island in Southern Australia. This event draws thousands of people every year and is something you should check out if you are down under!

 

 

There are some penguin colonies that also enlist a special breed of sheepdog to keep predators at bay. 

 

 

Known as Maremma sheepdogs, these large dogs can bond with sheep, or in this case, penguins when they are puppies. 

 

Foxes had nearly wiped out an entire colony several years ago and it was a farmer that came up with the idea to enlist the dogs. The program has been such a success it was even made into a film, and several other sheepdog programs are being used to help save other Australian endangered animals.

 

As long as the governments of Australia and New Zealand keep up with their protection efforts, little penguins can hopefully stick around for generations to come!