In May of 2022, just over a month ago at the time of writing, I wrote a piece on the recent boom in penguin attendees of the Phillip Island Beach “penguin parade.” At that time, record numbers of Little Penguins were recorded waddling onto the island’s shores in the evening. It was thought at the time that the birds may have been preparing for an extra breeding season due to an abundance of food. The general tone amongst bird enthusiasts surrounding this event was optimistic. Surging penguin populations are an excellent sign which demonstrates that the decades long conservation efforts targeting these birds have born fruit.
Now, unfortunately, the tone has shifted. For the last month or so, the bodies of dead Little Penguins have been washing up on New Zealand’s beaches in startling quantities. The current estimate for bodies found is more than five hundred, however it is likely that many more Little Penguins have died and not been counted. At one point, 183 birds were found in a single week on a single beach.
Related Article: Record Numbers of Little Penguins on Australian Beach
What is Happening to the Little Penguins?
Finding so many bodies in such a short period is obviously alarming. At first, there was some speculation that a new disease might be threatening this vulnerable population. 2022 has been a very serious year for avian influenza. This deadly virus has had its strongest impact on the poultry industry, however various wild bird populations, from Bald Eagles to Snow Geese, have been affected. Many hypothesized that the deaths of the Little Penguins might be related to this virus or another similar ailment.
Now, it is believed that the majority of the deceased Little Penguins succumbed to starvation. Of the 500 or so bodies found, most were discovered in an emaciated state. Little Penguins rely on layers of fat to insulate their bodies whilst diving for fish. When food becomes scarce and Little Penguins lose too much weight, their prospects become dire.
Scientists think that many of the Little Penguins may have died from hypothermia resulting from the lack of fat on their bodies. Ironically, this whole mass die-off is being attributed to rising ocean temperatures. Because the water is too warm, fish populations shrink or leave for colder waters which are inaccessible to the penguins. Then, the Little Penguins lose weight due to the shortage of food. Some die of starvation whilst others grow too thin to keep warm despite the rising temperature.
Due to record high ocean temperatures this year, it is thought that more die-offs may occur. It is hoped that the Little Penguins can recover from this blow, but too many die-offs provide them with very little time to rebuild their populations before the next catastrophe sets in. It is sincerely hoped, by myself and by all who love birds, that this year’s record-breaking “penguin parade” will not be the last one to see such impressive penguin attendance.