The Iconic yellow-eyed penguins—displayed on billboards greeting people arriving at the country’s main airports—could disappear from New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula by 2060. In a newly published study in the international journal PeerJ, scientists have modeled factors driving mainland Yellow-eyed penguin population decline and are calling for action to reduce regional threats. Like the endangered kiwi, the marine birds are in trouble despite featuring in tourist brochures, on airport billboards and the $5 note. Their pictures are widely used in branding and advertising.
The Yellow-eyed penguin, classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is a key attraction for New Zealand tourism. Yet, the chances of seeing the penguins in the wild are quietly slipping away, the new research suggests. Once-busy breeding grounds are now “overgrown and silent” with just a few pairs trying to carry on as birds are caught in fishing nets, are killed by unidentified toxins in the sea and suffer because of the general degradation of the marine environment by humans.
Scientists have modeled factors driving mainland yellow-eyed penguin population decline and are calling for action to reduce regional threats. According to the researchers’ prediction models, breeding success of the penguins will continue to decline to extinction by 2060 largely due to rising ocean temperatures. The rising ocean temperatures impact their ability to breed successfully. But these predictions also point to where our conservation efforts could be most effective in building penguins’ resilience against climate change.
Lead study author Dr. Thomas Mattern of the University of Otago says his team’s predictions are conservative estimates and do not include additional adult die-off events such as the one seen in 2013 in which more than 60 penguins died.
If the recent poor breeding years — 2013 onwards — are included in the simulation of the future penguin population, things get progressively worse.
Another Co-author, Dr. Stefan Meyer, adds:
“When including adult survival rates from 2015 into the models the mean projection predicts Yellow-eyed penguins to be locally extinct in the next 25 years,”
Despite this urgency, Yellow-eyed penguins continue to drown as unintentional bycatch in nets set in penguin foraging areas, suffer from degradation of their marine habitat because of human activities, and die from unidentified toxins.
Dr. Ursula Ellenberg, who has researched Yellow-eyed penguins for the past 14 years, said:
“It is sobering to see the previously busy penguin-breeding areas now overgrown and silent, with only the odd lonely pair hanging on,”
Increasing sea surface temperatures in part explains the negative trend in penguin numbers. Global warming is also thought to be playing a part in the animal’s demise, according for about a third of the population decline.
The authors conclude that:
“…now we all know that Yellow-eyed penguins are quietly slipping away we need to make a choice. Without immediate, bold and effective conservation measures we will lose these penguins from our coasts within our lifetime.”
“The problem is that we lack data to examine the extent of human impacts, ranging from fisheries interactions, introduced predators to human disturbance, all of which contribute to the penguins’ demise.
“However, considering that climate change explains only around a third of the variation in penguin numbers, clearly those other factors play a significant role….Unlike climate change, these factors could be managed on a regional scale.”
Notably, New Zealand’s other famous bird, the kiwi, is also in trouble with the northern brown kiwi and the Okarito brown kiwi both classed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Yellow-eyed penguin breeding grounds are now ‘overgrown and silent’ with just a few pairs ‘hanging on’ Thomas Mattern