Climate change threat to penguins’ future

A yellow-eyed penguin. PHOTO: ODT FILES
A yellow-eyed penguin. PHOTO: ODT FILES
A stronghold of yellow-eyed penguins on New Zealand’s subantarctic islands looks to be stable now, but looming threats of climate change mean even there they face an uncertain future, a researcher says.

More than 260 penguin specialists from throughout the world are in Dunedin attending the 10th International Penguin Conference.

The conference, which started on Saturday and ends on Wednesday, is hosting about 80% of active penguin researchers.

Yesterday, Massey University PhD student Chris Muller presented his research on yellow-eyed penguins in New Zealand’s subantarctic islands.

The species’ population is quickly declining on New Zealand’s mainland, which is leading some researchers to say that without heavy intervention they could be functionally extinct in that area in 10-15 years’ time.

However, the Subantarctic Island populations are separate and are, for some, the hope for the future of the species.

Mr Muller’s research shows the population on the Auckland Islands is much more stable.

Through several research trips, some using a custom-made wildlife monitoring drone, he estimated breeding pairs numbered anywhere from 444 to 992.

The last population survey of the penguins on the Subantarctic Islands was in the late 1980s.

"There has possibly been a decline, even though it seems stable at the moment," Mr Muller said.

There were a lot of differences in their breeding attempts, likely because of differences in foraging.

This was dependent on prey availability, which was likely impacted by climate change.

"For the future, climate change could be a problem for these guys and successive poor seasons in a row could be a problem."

Ideally it would not be another 30 years before the next penguin population survey in the area, he said.

"It shouldn’t be left to chance ... out of sight is not out of mind."

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