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The Department of Conservation is leading an effort to find a cure for a mystery illness killing large numbers of yellow-eyed penguin chicks.
The cause of avian diphtheria among yellow-eyed penguin chicks on Otago Peninsula remains a mystery and in an effort to find it, staff from Doc and the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) will be out collecting samples from chicks during the nesting season in spring.
MPI disease investigator Kelly Buckle, who was in Dunedin recently for the yellow-eyed penguin annual symposium, said it was possible the work could lead to a vaccine.
The disease - which hit the Otago Peninsula population every second year and was first described in 1999 - was one of several factors preventing the yellow-eyed penguin population from growing, she said.
''In really bad years, it can kill up to almost 70% of [chicks].''
The disease caused ulceration of penguin chicks' mouths, making it difficult for them to eat and breathe.
Previous research had looked at dead penguins but the disease was thought to be a ''two-stage'' one and by the time the chicks died, it was too late to determine the initiating cause.
It was hoped finding the initiating cause could lead to the discovery of a cure - potentially a vaccine - or better ways of managing it, Ms Buckle said.