Eudyptula minorlittle penguin

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Geographic Range

Eudyptula minor is found throughout the southern coast of Australia and as far north as the South Solitary Island off the coast of New South Wales. They are also native to the coasts of New Zealand. (Hoskins, et al., 2008)

Eudyptula minor has six recognized subspecies. E. m. novaehollandia is geographically located in Australia. The other five subspecies, E. m. iredaei, E. m. variabilis, E. m. albosignata, E. m. minor, E. m. chathamensis, are distributed around the country of New Zealand. (Davis and Renner, 2003)

Habitat

When on land, Eudyptula minor inhabits coastal habitats with good nesting conditions. Little penguins nest in burrows dug in bare sand or under vegetation. If the ground is too soft to hold a burrow, these penguins also nest in caves and rock crevices. Habitats include rocky coastline, savanna, scrub forest or forests. Little penguins are marine seabirds and spend the majority of their lives swimming underwater. (Ropert-Coudert, et al., 2009)

  • Other Habitat Features
  • caves

Physical Description

As the smallest penguin in the world, this flightless bird stands at an average height of 30 cm and has a weight of 1.1 to 1.2 kg. It has a black bill with an average length of 35 mm and eyes ranging from silver to blue, grey, and hazel. Its chin and throat are white along with the underside of its flippers and torso. The top of the head, neck and dorsal side of its flippers and torso are an indigo-blue. The color of the penguin’s feathers can become duller with age, and the color of their undersides can range from white to gray to brown. Sexual dimorphism is not pronounced in this species. Males are larger and have longer and deeper bills than females. Males have an average bill length of 35.7 mm and an average bill depth of 15.4 mm. Females have an average bill length of 34.5 mm and an average depth of 14.1 mm. Flipper length is similar in both genders with an average of 117.5 mm.

Juveniles have a dorsal plumage that is a brighter light blue than the indigo-blue of the adults. The juveniles also have thinner and shorter beaks. (Davis and Renner, 2003; Overeem, et al., 2008; Williams, 1995)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    1.1 to 1.2 kg
    2.42 to 2.64 lb
  • Average length
    30 cm
    11.81 in

Reproduction

Courtship begins with male little penguins performing courtship displays and giving mating calls. A male will hold his body in an upright position with flippers above his back, neck stretched, and head upright facing the sky. The male then emits a braying sound. These displays may be performed alone or in a group of unmated males. Occasionally the male will perform in front of a nest he constructed. After a female chooses a male, they perform a display together. One individual stands upright and spreads its flippers with head bowed, which signals the other bird to follow and they walk in small circles around the nest, braying as they go. After this display by male and female, copulation takes place.

Little penguins form monogamous pairs and retention of mated pairs from year to year is high in this species. Pairs are likely to split up only after an unsuccessful nesting attempt or death. (Davis and Renner, 2003; Williams, 1995)

Little penguins breed from June to October in loose colonies. They may nest in ground burrows, rocky cliffs or caves, where they lay a clutch of 1 to 2 eggs. The eggs are smooth and white in appearance. They have an average weight of 53 g and an average diameter of 42.0 mm. Incubation occurs for 31 to 40 days and the newly hatched chicks are an average weight of 36 to 47 g. The chicks are semi-altricial thus are born with downy feathers, require brooding, are unable to leave the nest, and are unable to feed themselves. After the young hatch, the next 18 to 38 days are termed the "guard period" for penguins during which time both parents brood the young, trading off every 3 to 4 days. After the initial guard period, the parents relax their duties and guard chicks only at night. Fledging occurs when the chick is 50 to 65 days old and at this time it has grown to between 800 g to 1150 g. Juveniles reach full independence at 57 to 78 days old. Most juvenile penguins reach reproductive maturity at 3 years old. (Davis and Renner, 2003; Williams, 1995)

The breeding cycle of Eudyptula minor is variable depending on nesting location and many other environmental factors. Nutrition, age, breeding date can influence the timing of the breeding cycle and nesting success. A lack of nutrition has been shown to delay the breeding process. The probability of breeding success also increases with age. This trend is attributed to the fact that older penguins have more experience, which increases the chance of fledgling survival. Little penguins can lay multiple clutches if the first clutch was a failure or if the adults raised their first fledglings early in the breeding season. (Heber, et al., 2008; Knight and Rogers, 2004; Nisbet and Dann, 2009)

  • Breeding interval
    Little penguins breed once a year, however, they do have the ability to lay an additional clutch.
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season usually occurs from June until December, but may vary geographically.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 2
  • Average eggs per season
    2
  • Range time to hatching
    31 to 40 days
  • Range fledging age
    50 to 65 days
  • Range time to independence
    57 to 78 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 years

Both sexes take responsibilities in the breeding process. Both male and female penguins may build their nest together, but the male may have a greater role in physically building the burrow. The female often takes on a larger role in the incubation stage, but the male still helps by exchanging duties with the female every 3 to 4 days. After chicks are born, both parents continue to brood the young during the "guard period." Again, parents swap guarding duties every 3 to 4 days so that one broods the chicks while the other forages. After several weeks, parents decrease guarding time to only at night. Chicks fledge after 50 to 65 days at which time they leave the nest and do not return for several days. Juveniles reach independence from their parents at 57 to 78 days old. (Williams, 1995)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Little penguins live an average of 6 years. However a banded little penguin has been recaptured the age of 25 years and 8 months old. Data on the lifespan of the bird in captivity could not be found. ("Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor", 2009; Nisbet and Dann, 2009)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    25.6 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    6 years

Behavior

Eudyptula minor has over a dozen different aggressive behavior displays. These displays can ultimately be divided into 4 different categories including stationary warning displays, rapidly advancing towards the intruder, brief physical contact and physical attacks. All four behaviors include a different type of physical display and vocalization.

The stationary warning displays occurs when the threat is 1 to 3 m away from the penguin. The penguin spreads its flippers, holding its body erect and giving the intruder a direct look accompanied by a loud vocalization. When the penguin rapidly advances towards the intruder, it walks quickly or lunges towards the intruder with a bray-like call. Brief physical contact can range from touching bills to slapping the intruder with a flipper. If the penguin is in its burrow, it lunges out to peck the intruder with its bill. If the intruder does not retreat, penguins resort to physical attacks that include biting and beating with flippers. (Williams, 1995)

Little penguins are considered the most nocturnal penguins, but generally spend all day foraging at sea and return to land to roost at dusk. In the breeding season, penguins swim out only an average of 8 to 9 km from shore for about 12 to 18 hours at a time. These short trips are probably because chicks have a limited ability to thermoregulate and need to be fed constantly. During the non-breeding season, penguins can take long distance trips of up to 710 km, but in most cases they continue to stay within 20 km of shore. Little penguins have to use a greater amount of energy to dive into the water than larger penguins, and although they can dive up to 67 m in depth, they mostly remain within 5 m of the surface. When the penguins return to shore from the sea, they parade back to their nests in groups. In good breeding years, these penguins form these groups in a nonrandom fashion, seeking out the same individuals they paraded with in the morning to parade back with at dusk. (Daniel, et al., 2007; Williams, 1995)

Home Range

Burrow nests are usually over 2 m apart in little penguin colonies. However, when the penguins nest in caves the nests are often closer than 2 m apart. (Williams, 1995)

Communication and Perception

Eudyptula minor is a nocturnal species and is highly vocal during the night while roosting. The sound of their calls can range from a low rumble to a trumpet-like noise. Their song can be used for several functions, including attracting mates. Each little penguin has a distinctive individual song that is used by parents and siblings to distinguish one another from strangers. Calls can also be used with an aggressive intent against an intruder around a penguin's nest.

Little penguins perform unique courtship displays. Males take a particular stance, with heads facing up and wings back, while braying to females. If the female accepts, she will join the male in a courtship "dance" where they march in circles together and make braying calls.

Like all birds, little penguins perceive their environments through visual, auditory, tactile and chemical stimuli. ("Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor", 2009; Jouventin and Aubin, 2000; Miyazaki and Waas, 2002; Nakagawa, et al., 2001)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • duets

Food Habits

Eudyptula minor is mainly piscivorous and employs a pursuit-diving technique to catch prey in shallow depths. The majority of its diet is composed of Clupeiformes fish, such as anchovies and sardines. The variety of fish consumed depends on the locality of the penguin. This species also preys on small squid, octopi and crustaceans. It has been observed that in recent years the number of prey available is decreasing. This results in longer foraging trips for the penguin, greater energy expenditures, and can ultimately decrease population sizes. (Hoskins, et al., 2008; Overeem, et al., 2008; Williams, 1995)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans

Predation

Key predators of little penguins are introduced species. These include dogs, weasels, rats, foxes and cats. Pacific gulls and King's skinks are natural predators that eat the eggs and young of little penguins. In an effort to decrease predation, little penguins move in groups to and from the ocean. This anti-predator technique occurs a few hours before dawn and a few hours after dusk when it is dark. As penguins are less mobile on land, making mass land movements under the cover of darkness is likely another method used to avoid predation. Despite these techniques, adult little penguins often fall prey to sharks, seals, and orca whales. (Daniel, et al., 2007; Overeem, et al., 2008; Williams, 1995)

Ecosystem Roles

Eudyptula minor plays multiple roles in its ecosystem as a predator and a host to parasites. It preys on small fish, squids, octopi, or occasionally crustaceans and likely impacts these populations. Little penguin eggs and chicks are food sources to local populations of dogs, rats, cats, and other introduced predators. Adult little penguins fall prey to sharks, seals, and orca whales and are a valuable food source to these predators. (Hoskins, et al., 2008; Williams, 1995)

In recent years, a new species of feather mite, Ingrassia eudyptula, has been discovered which is believed to parasitize Eudyptula minor. These mites eat preening oil on the feathers of the penguin. (Mironov and Proctor, 2008)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Feather mites (Ingrassia eudyptula)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The penguin parade of the Eudyptula minor is a popular tourist attraction. It has been recorded that 500,000 tourists annually come to watch the colony of penguins parade to and from the water at Phillip Island. ("Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor", 2009; Overeem, et al., 2008)

This specific species is also of great interest to scientists because of their small sizes and the increased amounts of energy needed to survive, especially in cold temperatures. This subject is important in the study of thermoregulation in endotherms, and the penguin's physical characteristics allow scientists to use this penguin in comparisons with other endotherms. (Fallow, et al., 2009; Thomas and Fordyce, 2007)

  • Positive Impacts
  • ecotourism
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known effects of little penguins on humans.

Conservation Status

Currently Eudyptula minor is not considered to be threatened by extinction. It is believed that the global population of these birds averages around 1,000,000 individuals. Their population is declining, however, due to introduced predators, decreasing populations of prey and oil spills. The intensity of industrial fisheries results in low prey densities for penguins and other piscivores. Factors such as human settlement, coastal erosion, and pollution have also affected the breeding habitats of these birds. (Davis and Renner, 2003; Overeem, et al., 2008)

The subspecies E. m. albosignata is now considered endangered. It is only found on the Banks Peninsula on South Island, New Zealand. (Davis and Renner, 2003)

Contributors

Ashley Chung (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chaparral

Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

colonial

used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

duets

to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate

ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fossorial

Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

2009. "Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor" (On-line). Parks & Wildlife Service, Tasmania. Accessed March 19, 2010 at http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/index.aspx?base=5091.

Daniel, T., A. Chiaradia, M. Logan, G. Quinn, R. Reina. 2007. Synchronized group association in little penguins, Eudyptula minor. Animal Behaviour, 74: 1241-1248.

Davis, L., M. Renner. 2003. Penguins. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Fallow, P., A. Chiaradia, Y. Ropert-Coudert, A. Kato, R. Reina. 2009. Flipper Bands Modify the Short-Term Diving Behavior of Little Penguins. Journal of Wildlife Management, 73/8: 1348-1354.

Heber, S., K. Wilson, L. Molles. 2008. Breeding biology and breeding success of blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) on the West Coat of New Zealand's South Island. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 35: 63-71.

Hoskins, A., P. Dann, Y. Ropert-Coudert, A. Kato, A. Chiaradia, D. Costa, J. Arnould. 2008. Foraging behaviour and habitat selection of the little penguin Eudyptula minor during early chick rearing in Bass Strait, Australia. Marine Ecology-Progress Series, 366: 293-303.

Jouventin, P., T. Aubin. 2000. Acoustic convergence between two nocturnal burrowing seabirds: experiments with a penguin Eudyptula minor and a shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris. Ibis, 142: 645-656.

Kato, A., Y. Ropert-Coudert, A. Chiaradia. 2008. Regulation of Trip Duration by an Inshore Forager, the Little Penguin (Eudyptula Minor), During Incubation. The Auk, 125/3: 588-593.

Knight, C., T. Rogers. 2004. Factors influencing fledgling production in little penguins. Wildlife Research, 31: 339-344.

Mironov, S., H. Proctor. 2008. The Probable Association of Feather Mites of the Genus Ingrassia (Analgoidea: Xolalgidae) with the Blue Penguin Eudyptula minor (Aves: Sphenisciformes) in Australia. The Journal of Parasitology, 94/6: 1243-1248.

Miyazaki, M., J. Waas. 2002. 'Last Word' Effects of Male Advertising Calls on Female Preference in Little Blue Penguins. Behaviour, 139/11-12: 1413-1423.

Nakagawa, S., J. Waas, M. Miyazaki. 2001. Heart rate changes reveal that little blue penguin chicks (Eudyptula minor) can use vocal signatures to discriminate familiar from unfamiliar chicks. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 50: 180-188.

Nisbet, I., I. Dann. 2009. Reproductive performance of little penguins Eudyptula minor in relation to year, age, pair-bond duration, breeding date and individual quality. Journal of Avian Biology, 40/3: 296-308. Accessed February 22, 2010 at http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-048X.2008.04563.x.

Overeem, R., A. Peucker, C. Austin, P. Dann, C. Burridge. 2008. Contrasting genetic structuring between colonies of the World's smallest penguin, Eudyptula minor. Conservation Genetics, 9/4: 893-905.

Peucker, A., P. Dann, C. Burridge. 2009. Range-Wide Phylogeography of the Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor): Evidence of Long-Distance Dispersal. The Auk, 126/2: 397-408.

Ropert-Coudert, Y., A. Kato, A. Chiaradia. 2009. Impact of small-scale environmental perturbations on local marine food resources: a case study of a predator, the little penguin. Proceedings of The Royal Society, 276: 4105-4109.

Sergent, N., T. Rogers, M. Cunninghman. 2004. Influence of biological and ecological factors on hematological values in wild Little Penguins, Eudyptula minor. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology - Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 138/3: 333-339.

Thomas, ., R. Fordyce. 2007. The Heterothermic Loophole Exploited by Penguins. Australian Journal of Zoology, 55/5: 317-321.

Williams, T. 1995. The Penguins: Spheniscidae. New York: Oxford University Press.