White-flippered Penguin (Eudyptula albosignata)
White-flippered Penguin chicks
© Peter and Barbara Barham
The White-flippered Penguin, previously classified as a subspecies of the Little Penguin, is now recognized as a separate species. Scientists believe it has been genetically distinct for approximately the last 2 million years.
The White-flippered Penguin is one of the world’s smallest penguin species, and has an overall blue-gray appearance, with distinguishing broad white trailing and leading edges of the flipper. The White-flippered Penguin is endemic to Canterbury, New Zealand and breeds in significant numbers only on Banks Peninsula and Motunau Island. They feed on small shoaling fish or squid, and less often on crustaceans. White-flippered Penguins lay their eggs in a burrow lined with plant material, or in hollows under bushes or rocks, in dunes, or on vegetated slopes of coasts and islands.
White-flippered Penguins have disappeared from much of their range since European settlement, and are in much reduced numbers where they have survived. At the time of European settlement, the Banks Peninsula would have had tens of thousands of penguins. Human settlement destroyed habitat outright and predators have overrun many of the remaining colonies. In one study, the aggregate number of nests declined from 489 to 85 between 1981 and 2000: an overall loss of 83%. The most recent estimate of the total population is only 2200 pairs. The key land-based threats continue to be predation by introduced predators and habitat degradation by human activities. At sea, White-flippered Penguins have been frequently caught in near-shore set nets, especially around Motunau Island. A large oil spill would be disastrous to this penguin, and the threat is high because the birds nest in areas near shipping lanes.
November 28, 2006