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Sea release best option, says penguin researcher

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sea release best option, says penguin researcher

A Massey University researcher says releasing Peka Peka’s emperor penguin off the south coast of New Zealand is the best option, should it return to full health.

Associate Professor John Cockrem, from the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, spent three weeks camping and working with emperor penguins at a large colony at Cape Washington in Antarctica in 2004. He spent that time studying stress responses in the birds.

Dr Cockrem has consulted with Department of Conservation staff about the bird’s well being since it was found on the beach last week.

He says there are a number of options being discussed. “Taking it back to Antarctica would be an issue on several levels,” Dr Cockrem says. “The weeks it could take to get there would put a lot of stress on the bird.”

Dr Cockrem has discussed some of the issues with staff at Antarctica New Zealand, who agree that the issue is not as simple as just taking the penguin back to Antarctica. There are international protocols in place to protect Antarctic wildlife. These protocols are important and the risks are real as there are multiple examples of Antarctic penguin colonies experiencing significant deaths due to suspected viruses. Another issue is finding the penguin's home colony as there is no way to be sure which of the several emperor penguin colonies this bird has originated from.

Keeping the bird in captivity would provide a stable home for the bird but also had its drawbacks. “There is no animal facility in New Zealand that is available to provide the right climate conditions, nor are there any other emperor penguins here,” Dr Cockrem says. “California does have the facilities, but again the time of transport would stress the bird immensely.”

The first emperor penguin found in New Zealand was released in Foveaux Strait, and release back to sea would be the best option for the current bird. “We would be releasing it into its own environment and a satellite tag could be used to track its progress,” he says. “It would be returning to its natural life with the minimum of stress.”

Dr Cockrem will meet with department staff to discuss the various options for the bird.

Dr Cockrem is an Associate Professor of Comparative Physiology and Anatomy. He has conducted endocrine studies of stress with a range of species including birds such as the kakapo, North Island brown kiwi, Adelie penguin, and chicken, together with reptiles, amphibians and marine mammals.


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