About little penguins

About little penguins

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Little penguins

An overview
Little penguins (Eudyptula minor) are the smallest of all penguin species, they stand approximiately 33cm tall and weigh around one kilogram, with males weighing slightly more than females. Little penguins breed in colonies along the southern coastlines of Australia and New Zealand, with Phillip Island in Victoria home to an estimated 32,000 breeding adults.

Little penguins spend 80% of their lives at sea swimming and foraging for food, and return to their nesting burrows on Phillip Island to breed, raise chicks, moult and to take a break after days or weeks spent at sea. It is when little penguins return to land, at sunset each day, that visitors to Phillip Island Nature Parks' Penguin Parade are lucky enough to spot them tumbling from the waves, waddling across the beach and into their colony along the coastline.

Human impacts such as introduced predators, over exploitation of marine ecosystems, oil spills, marine pollution and climate change can threaten little penguins and their ecosystems. The more we know about little penguins, the more we can do to protect them. 


What type of animal are penguins?
Penguins are seabirds that don't fly. They have a beak, feathers and lay eggs. Penguins have modified wings called flippers that they use for swimming in the ocean.

Little Penguin Facts

What colour are little penguins?
Adult little penguins are the only penguins in the world with blue and white feathers instead of black and white feathers. They are 'countershaded', the dark blue back of penguins blends in with the water to camouflage against any predators flying or swimming overhead, and the light stomach blends in with the sky to camouflage against any predators swimming underneath. Flying predators include large seabirds like petrels, swimming predators include certain species of seals.

Little penguins only move around on land after sunset when their land predators are sleeping.


What type of animal are little penguins?
Penguins are seabirds that don't fly. They have a beak, feathers and lay eggs. Penguins have modified wings called flippers that they use for swimming in the ocean.

How many species of penguins are there?

Around the world there are 17 species of penguins. All penguins are found in the southern hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, sub-Antarctic islands, South America and South Africa).

Why do penguins waddle?
Waddling is the most efficient form of movement for penguins. Little legs and big feet make movement awkward on land but waddling helps by raising a penguin's centre of mass, allowing the penguin to swing its body forward and gain momentum.

Where can I find a little penguin?
Little penguins are only found in southern Australia and New Zealand. In Australia little penguin colonies are scattered around the coastline from near Perth on the west coast, to Sydney on the east coast, and around Tasmania.

Phillip Island has only one remaining little penguin colony, part of which can be seen at the Penguin Parade which offers up-close views of little penguins.

How many little penguins are there?
Phillip Island is home to an estimated 32,000 little penguins. Current estimates put the total little penguin population at one million. 

How do you tell the difference between male and female little penguins?
It's all in the beak! Adult females have a thinner beak than males. Males have a distinct hook on the end of their beak.

 


What do little penguins eat?
Little penguins can eat about 25% of their body weight (approx. 250g) of small fish daily such as Barracouta, Anchovies, Red Cod, Pilchards and squid. 

How fast can penguins swim?
On average they can swim 2-4km/hr but they have been recorded swimming at 6.4km/hr.


Life on land

On land little penguins live in holes in the ground known as burrows. These burrows provide a place for little penguins to rest, nest and moult. Burrows also provide protection from predators and extreme heat. While on land little penguins remain inside their burrows during the day to avoid predators.

How much time do little penguins spend on land?
Depending on the season, a little penguin may spend between one day and one month at sea. When little penguins are breeding they will regularly return to incubate the eggs and feed their chicks. During winter little penguins spend more time at sea chasing fish and only return to rest and renovate their burrows.

Breeding
Little penguins do not mate for life. If breeding success is low, penguins may look for a new mate. Researchers from Phillip Island Nature Parks have recorded an annual divorce rate for little penguins of between 18 and 50%. Little penguins lay two eggs, which are in similar size to chicken eggs. Both parents take it in turns to incubate them. The incubation period is approximately 35 days.

Both parents feed their chicks by regurgitating fish and squid caught at sea. Chicks leave their parents and head out to sea for the first time at around 7 - 11 weeks of age, their parents do not teach them to swim or fish, they know how to do this instinctively.

 


Moulting
Little penguins moult between February and April staying ashore for approximately 17 days.

Penguins moult to replace their old and worn feathers. They do this so they can maintain a water proof plumage. Without waterproof feathres, they would lost lots of heat and eventually die of hypothermia.

They cannot eat during moult as they are not waterproof and so can't go out to sea to fish. Instead, they almost double their body weight beforehand.

Life at sea

Little penguins spend approximately 80% of their lives at sea, returning to land to breed, moult and rest. Researchers use satellite and GPS trackers to record where penguins go at sea. Satellite tracking from Phillip Island Nature Parks shows that Phillip Island's little penguins swim an average 15 to 50 kilometres (9-31 miles) a day. This includes diving up an down as they look for fish. The deepest little penguin dive recorded is 72 meters. An average dive in search of fish is between 5 and 20 metres.

Penguins have many adaptations for a life at sea, including:

  • Modified wings called flippers to 'fly' through the water
  • A gland to spread an oil like sustance over their feathers when preening to help keep them waterproof
  • A streamlined shape
  • Waterproof feathers (outer layer)
  • A layer of down next to their skin to trap air and keep them warm
  • A salt gland above their eyes to filter salt from seawater, providing penguins with freshwater.
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    Discover more about penguins with our handy penguin facts guide or download the Little Penguin Q & A prepared by the education team at Phillip Island Nature Parks.

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