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Posted on 27/04/2021 by Phillip Island Nature Parks

TINY TRACKERS HELP SCIENTISTS UNLOCK THE FEEDING SECRETS OF PHILLIP ISLAND’S LITTLE PENGUINS 


Marine scientists have attached sensors described as ‘penguin Fitbits’ to Phillip Island’s little penguins to follow their journey into the ocean to discover how they search for food at different stages of their lives.

By unlocking the secrets of penguin foraging, Phillip Island Nature Parks’ scientists hope to secure the supply of penguin food into the future, to ensure the population continues to thrive.

The study followed 10 male penguins over an entire breeding season to give a feeding snapshot of the entire population. The penguin Fitbits can tell where penguins go, how deep and how often they dive, giving a full picture of their lives at sea.

“Penguins have been around for 2.4 million years and have mastered the art of fishing,” said Nature Parks’ marine scientist Dr Andre Chiaradia.

“Our study showed penguins are remarkably flexible when searching for food. They vary their feeding strategy at short notice to get the best food, and choose different foods depending on where they are in their breeding stage. The penguin diet is quite diverse – from jellyfish to sardines and small barracoutas.”

“Studying penguins at sea is hard, so we relied on sensors like Fitbits to explore how penguins forage and what distance they travel. While most studies follow penguins for one feeding trip, our study followed individual penguins for the whole breeding season. What we’ve learned has shown us that we shouldn’t always rely on information based on a single feeding trip.”

Dr Chiaradia said they discovered a remarkable difference between feeding trips in each stage of the breeding season. For example, when incubating eggs, penguins can travel long distances as one parent sits on the eggs while the other forages at sea, with no hurry to return to the colony. But when the chicks have hatched, the male penguin needs to return quickly and regularly to feed the chicks, so they travel closer to the colony to ensure they have enough time to come ashore at dusk and feed their young.

“This is another crucial piece of a puzzle in understanding the lives of penguins at sea.
Future studies on penguins and marine animals in general will benefit from knowing that individual penguins vary dramatically in their foraging strategies. Every piece of information we gather assists us in protecting the little penguin population into the future.”

This study on diving and movement of penguins was conducted in conjunction with Phillip Island Nature Parks, the Australian Antarctic Division, Western University in Canada and scientists from several French organisations. It was published in the prestigious German Journal of Marine Biology.

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