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The 7 habits of highly effective penguins

Monday, October 31, 2016

Researchers will look at hormones and personality in little penguins.

The 7 habits of highly effective penguins

Researchers from Massey University and the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony are working together to improve conservation of penguins by uncovering the characteristics of a successful penguin.

The colony and the nearby Oamaru Creek Penguin Refuge have more than 300 breeding pairs of little penguins.

The researchers will measure responses of penguins to handling and see how these responses are related to breeding success, foraging behaviour and other features of their biology.

The team includes Massey Professor John Cockrem and one of New Zealand’s leading little penguin scientists, Dr Philippa Agnew from the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. They will be aided by Massey masters’ students Henry Elsom, Shelley Ogle, Kelly Long and Rachel Choi.

Professor Cockrem says, “Penguins secrete the steroid hormone corticosterone to help them adjust to short-term changes in their environment. We will study corticosterone responses in adults, and see how responses develop in chicks. Our work with Dr Agnew is an exciting chance to combine penguin corticosterone studies with the colony's long term breeding data.”

Once the data is collected, the team will look at individual variation in foraging and diving and prey capture behaviour, and look to determine if the behaviours are related to variation in corticosterone responses.

Professor Cockrem says, “Corticosterone and behavioural responses of birds to environmental stimuli are linked, with consistent individual responses known as personalities. Birds that are highly responsive are said to have a reactive personality and birds that have relatively smaller responses are said to have proactive personalities. We are interested in relationships between the different personalities and lifetime breeding success in the penguins.”

Outcomes of the project will include knowledge of the biology of little penguins that can be applied to the conservation of penguins, and joint publications between Massey University and the Colony. The projects being conducted by the students continue and extend the collaborative studies that Professor Cockrem and Dr Agnew began in 2012.

Dr Philippa Agnew says, “Training New Zealand’s future scientists is an important role and we are pleased to be able to provide assistance and the use of our facility to do so. I have very much enjoyed working with Professor Cockrem and his students. Henry, Shelley, Kelly and Rachel are all very capable and have successfully taken on the task of handling and sampling little penguins which, being wild animals, can sometimes be quite challenging.”

Additional work is being undertaken with Dr Agnew to guide penguins to use a new underpass that has been constructed so the penguins no longer have to cross a road.

Tourism Waitaki general manager, Mr Jason Gaskill says, “We welcome the on-going relationship with Massey University, Professor Cockrem and his students, and appreciate the world-leading work of Dr Agnew. The scientific credentials and reputation of the Colony she has spearheaded through relationships such as these reinforces the fact that recognised scientific rigour can comfortably coexist within a commercial framework, which is good for all involved.”

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