The state and knowledge of New Zealand penguins

The state and knowledge of New Zealand penguins

The New Zealand region is a hot spot for seabirds and hosts six of the world’s eighteen penguin species; of these, four are endemic species that occur only in New Zealand. Despite this regional species richness and New Zealand’s reputation for international leadership in species conservation, very little is actually known about our penguins. In comparison to most other non-NZ penguin species, there is a dearth of information about the biology and ecology of most New Zealand penguin species.

Threat status and state of knowledge of the world’s penguin species. New Zealand species rank highly (five out of six endangered or threatened) but are among the least researched. Note that the majority of research on Little penguins was conducted in Australia and it has recently been suggested that the Australian penguins are a different species to most Little penguin populations in New Zealand. Similarly, almost all of the research conducted on yellow-eyed penguins occurred on the New Zealand mainland; there is very little knowledge about yellow-eyed penguin populations on the sub-Antarctic islands, which are generally considered a stronghold of the species.

Five of our six penguin species are in decline. There is very little published literature for most New Zealand penguins, which means that the reasons for those population declines remain unknown. Consequently, current conservation actions principally revolve around occasional population counts and ad hoc research or conservation actions that may or may not address the real threats. With ever increasing pressure from anthropogenic factors, be it climate change, pollution, or fisheries interactions our penguins are in trouble. In order to prevent or reverse their population declines and to put in place evidence-based management, we first need to identify the actual rather than the perceived threats. For this research is essential.

The Yellow-eyed penguin / hoiho is currently facing extinction on the New Zealand mainland. However, there is something that can be done – with the right information at hand.

Penguins are considered ideal sentinels for the marine environment in that their population dynamics generally reflect the state of the ocean habitat they inhabit. However, this sentinel function can only be utilized if we have at least a basic understanding of their biology and population trends. With one third of the world’s penguin populations living and breeding in New Zealand, utilizing this potential can be of international relevance in that it may highlight the effects of climate change on a substantial portion of the Southern Hemisphere.

A comprehensive review of the state and knowledge of New Zealand penguins was published in 2019. It lists research and conservation actions required to improve the conservation status of New Zealand penguins. You can access the report here.

Since January 2019, the NZ Penguin Initiative has been working towards the implementation of these recommendations.