The penguins are arranged in neat, precisely spaced rows, their wings spread and their bright blue plumage faded by the sand. There are a total of 183, which were meticulously collected by locals, placed out, and photographed for further research. The birds were discovered last week at Ninety Mile Beach, the latest in a long line of dead penguins washing up on New Zealand shores.
New Zealand’s koror penguins, sometimes known as little blue penguins, are the world’s tiniest penguins. They’ve long been a popular sight along northern coastlines, bouncing up dunes at twilight with their distinctive, slightly stooped waddle, but their population is now classified as “at-risk, falling” by the Department of Conservation (DoC).
Locals have been surprised and perplexed by their deaths, which have been discovered washed up and decomposing on North Island beaches in recent months. The 183 bodies discovered at Ninety Mile Beach occurred the same week as more than 100 bodies were discovered discarded and decomposing at Cable Bay. Another dead flock of 109 was photographed at Ninety Mile Beach at the end of May, while a resident discovered 40 at Tokerau Beach, also in the Northland region, in mid-May. According to the Department of Conservation, at least 20 people died on the same beach at the beginning of the month.
Hi @docgovtnz, 3 dead blue penguins on 90 mile beach today, about 12km north of #Ahipara. All within a 100m stretch of each other. Run over by cars? Or victims of a certain fishing method? #NewZealand #Aotearoa #Wildlife #Penguins@nzherald @NZStuff @Breakfaston1 pic.twitter.com/isuo4OV1Yk
— Jeff Rice (@EvolvingCaveman) May 2, 2022
Locals in Northland social media groups are becoming increasingly concerned about the fatalities, wondering if the birds are being caught and abandoned by fisherman. Is there something in the water that I should be aware of? Have they contracted a new disease, such as avian malaria?
Since the beginning of May 2022, more than 500 penguins have washed up, according to Graeme Taylor, a Department of Conservation chief research consultant who monitors sea birds. He claims that it is impossible to offer an exact number because some are discovered and buried by people.
Scientists from the Ministry of Primary Industries agreed to test some of the dead birds earlier this year, he claims, in case a new virus or disease was sweeping through the colonies. They were looking for illnesses as well as poisons. They came to the conclusion that the birds were dying of starvation.
“It was discovered that all of the bodies were severely underweight. “These birds should have weighed between 800 and 1,000 grams, yet they were just half that weight,” Taylor explains. “There was no body fat on them, and there was very little muscle to be seen.” They can’t dive when they’ve reached that point of emaciation.” The birds eventually perish from malnutrition or hypothermia due to a lack of blubber to keep them warm.
The Department of Commerce believes the Koror are not hungry as a result of overfishing. Climate change, on the other hand, was making the seas too hot for the fish they consume. The warmest ocean temperatures in recorded history were reported last year for the sixth year in a row, according to data released last year. In New Zealand, this has resulted in marine heatwaves due to a La Nina weather pattern. As the water temperature rises, the little fish that koror consume migrate deeper in search of cooler waters, or leave the area altogether.
“This little species [of penguin] can dive down to 20 or 30 meters on a regular basis,” Taylor adds, “but it’s not very good at diving much deeper than that.” During the winter, the fish were most likely out of reach due to the warm water temperatures.
Sea bird deaths in large numbers have happened before: severe storms, heat waves, and other meteorological events can result in tens or hundreds of birds washing ashore. Taylor claims that the frequency has altered. Previously, such large numbers of deaths occurred only once every ten years or so. He claims there have been at least three mass-death years in the last ten years, with the frequency increasing.
The number of penguins found this year has been extremely high, according to Ian Armitage, a councillor for Birds New Zealand, which undertakes beach patrols to monitor dead seabird counts. He predicts additional mass deaths as a result of recent storms and high water temperatures. “This event is most likely not over,” Armitage adds, adding that it will likely persist throughout the winter. “Many more little penguins have been discovered.”
As human-caused climate change continues to warm the earth and its oceans, the species may eventually go extinct in the warmer North Island regions. “Once you start seeing it happen on a regular basis like this, the birds don’t have much of a chance to recuperate and reestablish their numbers,” Taylor says.
Populations are still flourishing well in the colder seas of the South, he claims. “However, the northern population is clearly in dire straits. And when summer events like these happen with the frequency that they have in the last ten years, they will be put under a lot of pressure to survive.”
This article by Tess McClure was first published by The Guardian on 14 June 2022. Lead Image: The bodies of little blue penguin have been washing ashore in New Zealand by the hundred this year. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images.
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