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Little penguins team up

By , 22 August 2014

Little penguins

New research has found little penguins spend the day in groups, looking for fish in the ocean.
Image: © iStock.com/Vito_Elefante

Little penguins spend their days finding food at sea. With the help of location-tracking devices, researchers have found out that the smallest species of penguin tends to travel the sea in groups, and may dive at the same time while hunting fish.

Little penguins, also known as fairy penguins or blue penguins, are found in southern Australia, New Zealand and the Chatham Islands. Often they live on islands safe from foxes and feral cats. The penguins spend their day hunting for fish and crustaceans at sea, and come back to land as the Sun sets, to sleep in burrows.

It is difficult to observe bird behaviour at sea, so to work out how penguins find food, Maud Berlincourt from Deakin University turned to technology. A very small and light location-tracking device that also measures depth allowed her to collect data on the penguins at sea. The device was put on the back of the birds like a little backpack, and black waterproof tape kept it attached to their slick feathers.

Each penguin swam around with their backpack for a day, and then Maud collected it again at night. “We are monitoring a breeding colony on the eastern coast of Victoria at London Bridge. Those penguins are already sitting on eggs and some of them have chicks right now,” says Maud. “It’s a lot of work. I have spent many days and nights in the field waiting for the birds to come back with their devices.”

Maud collected data over 22 days, and with only a few penguins each day wearing the device. She found that they went to sea to hunt for about 15 hours during the day, and travelled around 40 kilometres. That’s at least an eight hour hike for us people.

Between 30 and 50 little penguins would leave each day to find food, and only about four would be wearing the device. Even though Maud was only tracking a few penguins at a time, she found them hanging out together quite a lot. On average, about 85% of tracked penguins would spend at least some time walking, swimming or diving near other tracked penguins. Almost half of the time, penguins swimming together would also dive at the same time.

These results suggest that little penguins look for food in groups, and might cooperate as they hunt fish. Does a penguin always look for food with the same feathered friends? More research is needed to find out.

More information

Explore a year in the life of a little penguin with this fun interactive video.
Read the scientific paper (more advanced).
See a picture of a blonde penguin.

Share with us

What’s your favourite species of penguin? Is it the tallest species, the emperor penguin? Or perhaps it’s the species with the bright yellow crest, the Fiordland crested penguin or tawaki. Tell us in the comments below.

This article first appeared in Science by Email. Get your weekly dose of science by subscribing here.

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